How to be Ingenious (Jamie Young RSA 2011)

I snaffled a copy of ‘How To Be Ingenious’ by Jamie Young (RSA 2011), after I saw RSA CEO Matthew Taylor’s blog.  I was drawn to it for two reason.  My day job is a consultant, researcher and writer working in leadership and change in complex social systems, and – unsurprisingly – ingenuity, creativity and improvement is a recurring theme for clients. But also because, through some unexpected and unsettling life events, I am seriously in need of a bit of ingenuity myself right now.

Matthew sang it’s praises and so I was curious to see what this small pamphlet might have to offer – and that we hadn’t already done to death in the creativity and innovation spheres.

Helpfully Jamie sets his stall out early here, differentiating ingenuity from both ‘creativity’ – producing work that is novel and useful – and ‘innovation’ – implementing creative ideas in an organisation – to define it as:

  1. Using the resources at hand
  2. In surprising combinations
  3. To solve practical problems

The notion of ‘using the resources at hand’ means that ingenuity utilizes things that are both ‘finite and heterogeneous’ so that solutions are ‘frugal and elegant’ and entirely fit for their specific purpose.

Whilst Jamie draws heavily on the practical arts of engineering and craftsmanship to illustrate this, he also directs us to the ‘frugal and elegant’ solutions found in other aspects of our lives – from the haiku poem to the tweet of 140 characters to improv comedy.

This interplay of knowledge and practice from such different worlds is so attractive. My own research at Ashridge Business School is about connecting up very different organisations and sectors to work on the problem of delivering complex projects – from defence procurement to infrastructure construction to national security to health improvement to sustainable communities.  From the privileged position of a consultant who gets to work with many different organisations, I know that the systemic characteristics of the ‘complex project’ transcend organisations and sectors: and there is so much potential for learning and improvement from collaboration across seemingly unrelated territories.

In the chapter on Enhancing Ingenuity, Jamie highlights Hoegl’s work on the effects of financial constraints on ingenuity (which will be uppermost in many people’s minds right now).  He suggests five principles, to overcome ‘barriers of capability’ (when reduced resources prevent a team from undertaking tasks which have previously proved useful) and ‘barriers of will’ (where reduced resources affect motivation).

These really struck a chord.  Several years ago now I chaired a Health Board in Wales, charged with establishing a new organisation although most players in the system had been around for years (as so often happens in the NHS!)  I inherited a very challenging financial settlement, a disengaged group of people, frustrated stakeholders and a local hospital closure plan, among other pressing problems.  In spite of this, we were a largely successful Board and looking back, these five principles provide at least one way of telling that story.

  1. Bounded creativity – we concentrated on what was possible, do-able, within our financial and political constraints (often just getting on with things as trials or pilots and keeping below the political radar)
  2. Transferring knowledge from one domain to another – the multi stakeholder boards that were a feature of Welsh Local Health Boards introduced knowledge into the commissioning system that had, hitherto, been fragmented, often competing and silo’d. We worked hard to foster respect and confidence in each other’s perspectives, exploring our differences and finding ways to our common ground, which was, ultimately…
  3. A clear and exciting goal.  We were all committed to doing whatever we could to improve health and well being in our communities
  4. We are in this together.  We fostered inclusivity about who we called ‘we’ – and then we pooled our resources.  We included not just the ‘health’ budget, but also partnered with the local authority (with Wales’s first joint appointments): with primary care (involving clinicians in strategic decision making and review, using their front line and clinical intelligence about what was working – and what was not); and patients and carers, valuing their stories and experiences in service design and evaluation.
  5. A can-do attitude. We created and supported ‘crucibles of experimentation’ on important issues, learning from their successes and their failures, staying focussed on the practical things we could actually do to improve health and social care.  We refused to be thwarted by constraints (and there were many!) and took these as a challenge to be more ingenious, keeping our shared goals uppermost.

This pamphlet is full of practical examples of ‘applied ingenuity’ – from the Comedy Store Players, to Danish wind turbines, to human survival itself.   From these very diverse examples come ingenious responses to the significant challenges we face.  The RSA is supporting more experimentation to foster ingenious solutions in three key projects – Ingenious Communities, Ingenious Incentives and Ingenious Education. (more info

Back to my own pressing problems.  Facing divorce, the resultant reduction in family income and living on a small farm with elderly parents and teenagers, the prospects of also uprooting us from the place we love and where we can support each other feels too unbearable to contemplate. The day job pays well but it’s not enough and there’s the small matter of managing a farm… So I hoped for some genuine inspiration from ‘How to be Ingenious’.

Well, applying these rules, I have formulated a few next steps.  Looking around, what are the resources available to me? I have 52 acres, great farm buildings, a few sheep, cattle, hens, abundant trees, footpaths and an environment grant.  I have my research skills.  What’s available where? Who’s doing what? What support is available for farmers?   And most importantly I remembered I have my networks and I have my friends.  Friends who have also faced such challenges and done extraordinary things.  In the start up days of the Health Board, we navigated and negotiated a lot of difficult issues in my conservatory with a bottle of wine and the ‘posh crisps’, as they came to be known.

Hosting convivial places for inquiry, support and collaboration, genuinely seeking other perspectives, introducing fresh, even unusual ideas – but all within the practical considerations of what we can actually accomplish…  This might be my best resource.  I feel a party coming on….


About suepritchard

I live a portfolio life: researcher, writer, consultant, organic/permaculture farmer, single mother of three grown-ups and social activist..... My main work is running SULEiS, a consulting network for building leadership and change capability, inside and outside traditional organisations, to make practical progress on the difficult issues.
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One Response to How to be Ingenious (Jamie Young RSA 2011)

  1. Jamie Young says:

    Dear Sue – Many thanks for referencing ‘How to be Ingenious’ so kindly. It’s fascinating to hear your experiences of the Health Board through the lens of Martin Hoegl’s principles. Sorry to hear of the difficult times you face, but it’s great to hear of the amazing potential of the resources that you have. I think an ingenuity party sounds like an excellent first step…!

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