Growing innovative minds - blog by Tim Minshall

By Professor Tim Minshall, Dr John C Taylor Professor of Innovation, & Head of the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge


The Manufacturing Leaders' Summit is the biggest conference in UK manufacturing and I'm pleased to have been invited to present as Chair on 14 November. This year’s conference theme, ‘Future-Proof Your Business’, raises an array of complex and challenging questions about how we might conceive and approach change. In the current climate of political, social, economic and technological change, it can seem like we are facing an overwhelming need to grapple with a series of upheavals. But will things really feel easier once we’ve clambered over these next immediate obstacles?


The thing about change is that it never goes away. A manufacturing business might get to a point where it has implemented new technologies in production, or better understood the impact of Brexit. But there will always be the next challenge, the next disruption, the next opportunity. And if we try to resist change, we are likely to be overtaken and squeezed out by those who embrace it and find ways to turn it to their positive advantage.


So how can we learn to adapt to constant change, become more resilient to its effects, and seek the hidden opportunities it offers?


It’s long been my view that this is all about people, rather than technology. We need people at all levels in organisations who are equipped to navigate through change. This requires developing the mindset and the skills to innovate. Not just to innovate once, or create something clever as a one-off achievement, but to innovate continuously in all aspects of our work. It requires innovation in product development, in production processes, in business models, in decision-making, in management practices. And innovation in how we develop people to look for opportunities for continuous improvement. It requires innovation to be hard-wired into our organisational cultures.


But how? Well, sometimes the inspiration for approaching such challenges lies where you might least expect it. One of the things I enjoy most in my work is getting hands-on with our outreach work, regularly going into schools with activities such as those devised in our ‘How Stuff Gets Made’ programme.


The main idea behind our outreach work is to give children and young people some insights into manufacturing and engineering, hopefully sparking some excitement, and perhaps motivating some of them to become our future manufacturing engineers. But we should never overlook the fact that children often have much to teach us too - not least in how to approach problems with free-thinking creativity and a willingness to experiment, even if that means getting things wrong sometimes.


Children are natural innovators.


They are predisposed to keep trying different ways to solve a problem – from learning to crawl to figuring out the best way to climb a tree. This is deeply embedded in the natural learning process. But somehow as we grow up, this inclination to experiment too often gets damped down. We experience failures and humiliations, we become more fearful of risk, and we are more likely to want to do things right the first time and hide our mistakes.


There is a famous team-building exercise called the Marshmallow Challenge, in which teams are given sticks of dried spaghetti, a metre of tape, some string, and a marshmallow and asked to build the tallest tower with the marshmallow on top. Research based on the experiment showed that teams of very young children are high performers, significantly outperforming teams of business school graduates, and outperforming the average score from other adult groups. The teams of children were more likely to test several different ideas, and change their tack if one idea didn’t work.


So instead of repressing this openness we have as children, perhaps we can learn from it. We are all capable of thinking differently, and questioning established practices. We all have enquiring minds, the ability to innovate, and the capacity to collaborate to address problems. To embrace change, and seek out its positive impacts, it is vital that we think about how best to nurture innovation in ourselves and in our current and future workforce.


I look forward to a vibrant two days at the conference sharing ideas with you on how we achieve this together.


View the full conference agenda on the Manufacturing Leaders' Summit website. 

For further information please contact:

Sarah Wightman, Communications Officer