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Harry Brearley – the inventor of stainless steel – and Ten Types of Innovation

August 19, 2013

The race for technology innovation, be it devices and Apps from Apple, cloud and virtualisation software from VM Ware, or software languages and frameworks such as Scala and Akka from Typesafe, is shaped by the ambition to achieve a first, a breakthrough, a game-changing advancement.

Entrepreneurs, driven by passion, open mindedness, curiosity and a forward-looking approach are fired up by disruptive thinking, yielding bold ideas to make something happen, make their mark and leave a legacy. I was minded of this just last week on the 100th anniversary of Harry Brearley’s invention of stainless steel on 13 August 1913.

From the 1850s, for nearly fifty years, scientists knew that iron-chromium alloys were more resistant to attack by certain acids, and many attempted to create a low carbon stainless steel, but none succeeded. It wasn’t until 1911 that the importance of minimum chromium content was captured by the Germans, Monnartz and Borchers.

They discovered the correlation between chromium content and corrosion resistance, and that there was a significant boost in corrosion resistance when at least 10.5% chromium was present. It is at this point that Harry Brearley, born in Sheffield in 1871, entered the race for stainless steel.

One of eight siblings born into poverty, Brearley can be considered an unlikely individual to make a revolutionary metallurgic discovery. At the age of twelve he was taken on as a ‘cellar boy’ at Thomas Firth & Sons, the same crucible steel works that employed his father, whom Harry described as an expert steel smelter and an expert ale supper. In his own words, Harry was awarded this position simply due to the fact that his face was cleaner than another’s.

With progression, by his early thirties Harry earned a reputation as an astute professional in the resolution of practical and industrial metallurgical problems. In 1912, he was given a task by an arms manufacturer to prolong the life of their gun barrels, which were eroding away too quickly.

Brearley set out to create an erosion resistant steel, not a corrosion resistant one, and began experimenting with steel alloys containing chromium. During these experiments Brearley made several variations of his alloys, ranging from 6% to 15% chromium with differing measures of carbon.

On the 13 August 1913 Brearley created a steel with 12.8% chromium and 0.24% carbon, resulting in the first ever stainless steel. He exposed samples of his steel to vinegar and food acids such as lemon juice, and found that it resisted attack. At that time the majority of cutlery was constructed of carbon steel, which would eventually wear through to the base alloy, and Harry saw the potential for his steel for the Sheffield cutlery industry.

He struggled to win the support of his employers, so produced his new steel at local cutler R. F. Mosley. Working with Ernest Stuart, Cutlery Manager at Mosleys, within three weeks they had perfected the process. Brearley had initially decided to name his invention ‘Rustless Steel’, but Stuart, dubbed it ‘Stainless Steel’, and the name stuck.

Harry supervised the production of a number of batches of cutlery, which he gave to his friends, asking them to return them if fruit, condiment or food marks them. None were returned. Harry returned to his employer adamant that this new steel had enormous potential. However, the conservative directors proclaimed that rustlessness was not so great a virtue in cutlery, which of necessity must be cleaned after each using, and he was again ignored – to the point of reprimand for being over enthusiastic.

In his autobiography, Knotted String, published in 1941, Harry commented that his discovery of stainless steel was: A highly coloured incident. The people in authority saw nothing of commercial value and still less of scientific interest. The rusting of iron is universally accepted and no one seems willing to accept that it can be overcome. I hope I will not be taken amiss if I say that workmen are often much wiser than their masters. It’s amazing to think that it was not until the early decades of the C20th that the first stainless steel was patented and manufactured.

In business today, innovation is an imperative – customers demand it and competitors may outflank you and talented employees might not join you if you don’t deliver it, and yet many people still believe in primitive myths about innovation: It’s mainly about new products and new technology; It’s about rare strokes of inspired genius; There’s no disciplined, consistent method that you can apply; etc. These common assumptions are untrue.

Choosing which innovative ideas to pursue is often an exercise in guess work, but there are two dimensions of innovation’s potential to guide decision making: Can it create new market space? Can it deliver more value to customers than existing products?

Doblin, the innovation practice within Deloitte Consulting, has an acclaimed methodology, which guides you to ten types of innovation, which can be combined for competitive advantage. The Ten Types of Innovation emerged from research into more than 2,000 successful innovations and identified the ten meaningful moves that great innovators typically made and thus provides insight into diagnosing sources and patterns of innovation.

The Doblin research shows that effective innovators take a balanced approach, splitting their investments 70/20/10 between incremental, adjacent and transformational innovations, which ensures a focus on playing both the long and the short game. The Ten Types of Innovation framework helps identify and accelerate the most promising ideas, kill those with little potential, and effectively improve the overall return on innovation investment.

Here are Doblin’s ten types of innovation. Which can you identify as offering potential opportunities for your own business?

Profit Model: How you make money Innovative profit models find a fresh way to convert a firm’s offerings into cash, and reflect an understanding of what customers value and where new revenue or pricing opportunities might lie. Innovative profit models often challenge an industry’s established assumptions about what to offer, what to charge or how to collect revenues. In most sectors the dominant profit model is tired, old and often goes unquestioned. Apple’s iTunes is a great example of profit model innovation. Here’s a great piece summarising breakthrough thinking:

Network: How you connect with others to create value in today’s hyper-connected world, no firm can or should do everything alone. Collaborative networking enables firms to leverage other companies’ brands, processes, technologies, offerings and channels through strategic partnering. This network driven innovation means a firm can capitalise on its own strengths and share risk while harnessing the capabilities and assets of others, develop new offers and ventures. CISCO’s strategy and customer offering is based around the ROI of collaborative networks

Structure: How you organise and align your talent and assets Structure innovations are focused on organising all of the company’s assets in unique ways that create value. Looking across traditional organisation boundaries, such innovations help attract and develop talent by creating productive working environments or fostering a level of performance that competitors can’t match. Apple is especially good at this, leveraging and unifying their technology, design and marketing teams.

Process: How you use processes to do your work differently Process innovations involve the activities and operations that produce an enterprise’s core customer offerings. This requires a fresh think around ‘business as usual’ that enables the company to provide a different customer engagement and cost model. Process innovations often form the core competency of an enterprise, are sustainable and become the ‘special sauce’ that competitors simply can’t replicate. shows the power of process innovation.

Product Performance: How you develop distinguishing features and functionality Product Performance innovations address the value, features of a company’s offering. This type of innovation involves both entirely new products and updates to existing products that add substantial customer value. Too often, people mistake Product Performance for the sum of innovation, when, as Doblin highlights, there are other sources. It’s often the core of the competitive arena, but it devolves into an expensive arms race and mad dash to parity from competing firms in the market. The mobile phone market is an example of this. Product Performance innovation that delivers long-term sustainable competitive advantage are the exception rather than the rule – the Dyson being a great example of this.

Product System: How you create complementary products and services Product System innovations are rooted in how individual products and services connect or bundle together to create a scalable system. This is fostered through interoperability, modularity and integration to create valuable connections. Product System innovations help you build ecosystems that captivate and delight customers by providing bundled value – check out as a example

Service: How you support and amplify the value of your offerings Service innovations ensure and enhance the utility, performance and value of an offering. They make a product easier to use and highlight features and functionality customers might otherwise overlook. They also fix problems and smooth rough patches in the customer journey. Done well, they elevate average products into compelling experiences that customers come back for again and again. Think about your experience of customer service quality from mobile phone companies as how to reduce customer value!

Channel: How you deliver your offerings to customers and users Channel innovations encompass all the ways you connect with your customers and users. While e-commerce has emerged as a dominant force, traditional channels such as physical stores are still important in creating immersive experiences. Skilled innovators find multiple, complementary ways to bring their products and services to customers. Their goal is to ensure that users can buy what they want, when and how they want it, with minimal friction and maximum delight. Apple’s Genius Bar is a great complimentary Channel Innovation

Brand: How you represent your offerings and business Brand innovations help to ensure that customers and users recognise, remember and prefer your offerings to those of competitors or substitutes. Great ones distil a brand promise that attracts buyers and conveys a distinct identity, the result of carefully crafted strategies that are implemented across many touchpoints between your company and your customers, including digital communications, advertising, service interactions and employee conduct. For me, although never personally remotely interested in motorbikes, Harley Davidson defines brand innovation

Customer Engagement: How you foster compelling interactions Customer Engagement innovations are all about understanding the deep-seated aspirations of customers and using those insights to develop meaningful connections between them and your company. Great Customer Engagement innovations provide opportunities to foster customer loyalty and help people find ways to make parts of their lives more memorable. The Body Shop execute this brilliantly

The Ten Types of Innovation research provides a thoughtful and structured framework for building breakthroughs built around a seminal Doblin discovery: that there are ten distinct types of innovation that need to be orchestrated with care to make game-changing innovations. How can you apply this to your business?

However, you also need the mindset, determination and curiosity of Harry Brearley. When we all think alike, nobody is thinking. Capital isn’t so important in business, neither is experience, you can get both these things, what is important is new ideas. You need to be a Harry Brearley: see what everybody has seen and think what nobody has thought, and don’t live your life in the rear view mirror – it tells you where you’ve been, not where you can go.

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