‘Innovation demands putting away spreadsheets and allowing people to break rules’

15 Oct 2019

Darrell Mann. Image: Systematic Innovation

Darrell Mann of Systematic Innovation discusses why the next decade will be the ‘golden years’ for innovation, and how a ‘rubbish’ Christmas gift inspired him to become an inventor.

Darrell Mann spent the first 15 years of his career working as a systems engineer in the military aerospace industry, ultimately becoming chief engineer at Rolls-Royce. Responsible for the company’s R&D strategy, he developed a variety of trend forecasting tools and methods to define the needs of future customers.

Mann is now the CEO and technical director of Systematic Innovation, travelling around the world to teach technical and business audiences about invention and innovation. His consulting clients include Samsung, Tata, Jaguar Land Rover and many others. Mann will be speaking at the Leading Business Innovation 2019 conference in Kilkenny on 22 October, which is hosted by the IRDG.

‘The world is full of wobbling dominoes at the moment. When one falls, they’ll all fall’

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m the detective that finds the real problem, the fixer that finds and helps implement the right solution, the coach that helps others to do the same, and the occasional writer that attempts to make the world of innovation slightly less dysfunctional.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?
  • Maintain a long enough to-do list, so that no matter what environment or depressed state I might be in, there’s always something I can productively get on with
  • Do everything possible to eliminate failure demand
  • Do everything possible to avoid creating new failure demand
What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The world is heavily biased in the direction of operational excellence. The better an enterprise is at the – still essential – job of continuous improvement, the worse it is going to be at innovation.

Being innovative is not what gets people promoted inside large organisations. Consequently, those organisations are top-heavy with ‘operational excellence’ people that have little or no understanding of how the innovation world works. Innovation demands putting away the spreadsheets, allowing people to break rules (to find better ones) and bravery. These are skills modern leaders tend to no longer have.

What are we doing to tackle the problem? Subtly infiltrating as many EMBA programmes around the world as we can to start teaching the required new skills. That, plus lots of one-on-one time with leaders that have hit a crisis through which they have realised that the spreadsheets aren’t helping, the current rules aren’t working and that keeping hidden below the parapet isn’t going to work any longer.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

The world is full of wobbling dominoes at the moment. When one falls, they’ll all fall, which makes the next five to 10 years set to be golden years for innovation across nearly every sector.

In sectors that are bad at innovation – such as government, healthcare, financial services, education, automotive – we’re looking to work with the disruptors.

In sectors that are good at innovation – such as food, IT, electronics, tourism – we’re looking to work with the best to help them become fitter, faster and freer.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

Christmas 1969 brought me a couple of board games that, ungrateful wretch that I am, I soon concluded were rubbish. My Dad told me if I didn’t like them I could either spend the next 12 months moaning or get off my arse and re-invent them.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Destroying a perfectly good jet engine comes pretty high up the list. I learned how to not do it again.

How do you get the best out of your team?
  • Just the right amount of autonomy, with a sense of belonging and boundary-stretching work
  • Bringing in great innovation projects to work on
  • Fairly sharing the inevitable array of crappy jobs we’ve so far been unable to eliminate
Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

Working in so many different countries and cultures means I usually get to see the precise opposite of a diversity problem. Diversity is an essential component of any innovation project in my experience.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

Tony Jarvis, Pete Upsher and Alastair Duncan were the three Rolls-Royce engineers that had the biggest influence on me during my formative thirties. I will never be able to thank them enough for the time they devoted to answering my endless stream of dumb questions about gasturbines, out-smarting ‘the system’ and life in general.

What books have you read that you would recommend?
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, for weekdays
  • Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story of the Ramones, for the weekend
  • Or any of mine if there’s ever a need to do some actual innovation
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

An ability to laugh in the face of, usually self-generated, adversity.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.