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The creative thinking behind the click of a kettle.

The creative thinking behind the click of a kettle

Click your fingers and think of a kettle.

The inventor of the world's first electric kettle was clever, but John C. Taylor was arguably cleverer. He created the gizmo that, an estimated one billion times a day worldwide, clicks off kettles when the water boils. More than 20% of the world's population uses the device, which is incorporated into such leading brands such as Morphy Richards and Russell Hobbs.

Taylor joined his father's company, Otter Controls, as a trainee soon after graduating from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1959. Having taken over as chairman when his father died in 1971, he focused on the Castletown Thermostats subsidiary which he split from Otter Controls in 1979. Castletown later changed its name to Strix Ltd, which Taylor continued to chair until his retirement in 1999.

Innovation remains at the heart of Strix, which operates on the premise that 'The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas'. It has registered some 475 patents across the world, from water filters to noise-dampening coatings for electric kettles.

But how do companies like Strix, which seek to foster a steady stream on innovation, manage the creative people at the heart of their success? In the September 2009 issue of Management Today, Goffee and Jones offer an approach for retaining and leading an organization's brightest talents.

The authors argue that cleaver people generally dislike being told what to do. They respond better to other experts than to people whose power stems mainly from their place in the hierarchy. Resentful of organizational barriers, they relish the space to try out new things. And, say Goffee and Jones, they need to feel safe that it is acceptable to fail.

This lesson was not lost on Glaxo chairman Sir Richard Sykes. According to the authors, when three of his company's high-technology antibiotics all failed in the final stages of clinical trial, he wrote to thank the team leaders for their hard work but also for their decision to kill the drugs. He then encouraged them to move on to the next challenge.

In Volume 52, Issue 5 of Business Horizons, Shepherd and Kuratko argue that much of the work of research and development teams fails because of the uncertain environment in which it develops. Failure can be an important source of information for learning ? but the learning does not occur automatically. In particular, the sense of grief that can accompany the 'death' of a project can interfere with the learning process.

The authors explain the grieving process and show how individuals and organizations can manage it to enhance learning.
The theme of learning from events is taken up by Madsen in Volume 20, Issue 5 of Organization Science. Madsen's investigations into accidents in the US coal-mining industry between 1983 and 2006 reveal that minor accidents influenced accident rates at a pit for only a year after the incident, while a fatal accident cut the mine's risk of having another fatality in the following two years by between 85% and 90%. While other mines did learn from the effects of an accident elsewhere in the industry, this mainly happened indirectly through changes in safety regulations.
The author also finds that the mechanisms through which organizations learn from disasters differ from those through which they learn from minor accidents.