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The cross-innovation interviews: Propelia's Dan Simmons (Pt 2)

This is the second part (see Pt 1 here) of a lengthy and detailed conversation with Dan Simmons, conducted by Simon Hopkins on behalf of the Knowledge Transfer Network. In the previous post, Dan discussed his background in the record industry and how it led him to conceive and then found “a record company for ideas”: Propelia. In this second half Dan talks about his work with one of the company’s roster of “pathfinders”: Robert Rowland Smith.
 
 
Constellations
 
Around the time that I started Propelia I met the philosopher Robert Rowland Smith, who is also a blue chip consultant and a best-selling business author. Robert had come across the workshopping process known as Constellations, a modern adaptation of a Zulu process that draws on the collective unconscious of a group and in doing so enables “a different form of knowing”. After attending sessions as a participant, had become a practitioner.
 
I was immediately, intrigued: why is this Oxford Don doing this? He doesn’t need to, it’s not exactly glamorous. So I went to this little church hall with 15-20 people to watch a session. The participants sat in a semi-circle and Robert asked who would like to “constellate” something. Someone would bring up an issue or problem and Robert organised the group to represent different aspects of the issue. I got it straight away: you can feel the system at work, you can feel the information. Robert’s job is to orchestrate it then simply keep it moving, albeit with an agenda. But essentially, it takes on a life and form of its own.
 
Moving beyond ideas
 
This was brilliant, but how could you bring this into the innovation mix? What we’ve done since at Propelia is help develop a philosophical position for Robert: that we are going beyond the age of ideas. Everyone is now saying that ideas are no longer enough. The situation in France is not a new idea (we discussed the post-Charlie Hebdo dialogue in the last part); what Robert is saying is that we still need transition and change but it’s going to be about this interlocking forms and different assumptions. What is the new form of knowing? And how do we bring this new form of knowing into the innovation process?
 
The Ovation
 
Having helped set out Robert’s stall, we’ve launched something called The Ovation. (In the word “innovation” you’ll find the word “ovation”). The Ovation process is based on Constellations and is aimed at driving innovation by looking to ask and approach questions no-one else it looking at. It’s about finding what we call “the Ovation moment”; once you’ve have found that ovation moment, you can go back to the innovation process and you can begin to build strategy around it. Robert has actually written a book called The Reality Test which about is the limits of reality and how reality rarely meets strategy or innovation.
 
We spent 12-18 months writing a simple blueprint for bringing out innovation through knowing and allowing the system to tell you where that knowing is. Because that’s not always clear.  What we’re doing with Robert is trying to bring him into that space and present him as someone that can prepare you for innovation (and by extension save a lot of money, time and heartbreak).
 
Look at Kodak: utterly dominant in their field and unable to survive the noughties as they didn’t know what questions to ask – they didn’t know where to look for their collective knowing. Kodak could have been a travel company who helped people “find the moment”, rather than taking a picture of the moment. They could have said, we know how to find the moment, let us find it for you. Or another approach: these days people don’t have photographs that they keep, and they are losing their photographic memory; how much more valuable would Kodak have been if they’d addressed – and even owned – that problem?! What Robert is saying is that you have to give birth to things you don’t understand fully.
 
Spreading the message
 
We are now talking to three brand agencies that want to be involved with this type of leadership and enable it with their resources. At present we have no competitors; we have 2-3 good years in us to create a bit of magic because I know I will wake up one morning and know I can’t do it anymore: that I’ll no longer feel relevant. I always want to get out while I’m ahead. We’re doing a multi-pronged attack, going in at a very senior level where Robert will examine a breakthrough and how it has been understood and look at that as a lesson about how breakthroughs come about.
 
We’re also working with a magazine called Formula Life that serves a very high net worth readership. We’re using the magazine to showcase Robert and the Ovation process, through boutique, bespoke offers to their readers. For example £5K will get you three sessions in iconic locations like Abbey Road or Darwin’s House; Robert will talk about the theory and ally it to the location, and use that location as a catalyst for new thinking – for new knowing.
 
We also want to align ourselves with a big innovation project, with one key partner that gets where Robert is coming from. Oh and of course I want him on the cover of GQ! The guy who’s thinking of and practically approaching breakthrough in a completely different way, that’s where I want him to be.
 
Thanks to Dan for the considerable time he gave for this interview and for taking yet more time out to check through the transcripts.
 
 
Simon
 
 
 
 
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