Thoughts on innovation

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ”
― Shunryu Suzuki

One of the exciting things about working with people starting out with climbing, or when explaining concepts or ideas, is to recognize the essence, the core, of what you are trying to convey. This, I suppose, is what distinguishes good teaching from the mediocre. Definitively I find that in doing so I reflect what and how I am instructing – as I have said before, this is after all work at height we are talking about here and the risks this entails shall not be taken lightly. Or, to put it differently, teaching brings great responsibility with it.

In this respect, the relationship between teacher/ instructor and student is a challenge in both directions. It forces me to step away from my “expert” view, which experience may have narrowed down to techniques that have proved themselves to be functional and efficient – yet the beginner’s view may introduce a different angle I had not considered before and by doing so helps me to open my mind, as Shunryu Suzuki would say.

One of the things I find is that there is a certain expectation to teach “new stuff”.

This demand will often as not come from climbers who already have a certain level of knowledge. This can put you, as an instructor, under considerable pressure. However, over the years I have learnt to stick to my guns. Frequently when you start scratching the surface you will find that underneath it the understanding for basic techniques and concepts is quite shallow, incomplete or sometimes even completely missing. Some things bear repeating.

I love watching Rip Tompkins talking about different ways of creating Prusik lifts, because… well, Rip is Rip and a very gifted presenter/ instructor. But also I learnt a lot from watching those Arbor Master presentations, the way they condense out key words and will then drive them home with a vengeance and not be shy to really elaborate on a concept that is superficially quite “simple”, but when you look at it more closely can be discussed to considerable lengths.

So what is this pressure to show the newest, best and most innovative?

Come to that, what exactly do we mean, when we talk about something being innovative?

Wikipedia has the following to say on the topic:

Innovation is a new idea, device or process. Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulated needs, or existing market needs. […] The term innovation can be defined as something original and, as a consequence, new, that “breaks into” the market or society.

Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.

Over the years, in our small tree climbing world, we have seen our share of inventions and innovations.

Looking back, for me clear inventions were the ring saver concept that Francois Dusenne came up with and Peter Styrnol and Knut Foppe first sold via High Tree Tech, or New England Rope’s Safety Blue HiVee, the first 16-strand arborist climbing line with a load-bearing cover. These were quantum leaps forwards and created a climate in which innovation occurred that changed the way in which we work and access trees profoundly.

Innovations on the other hand are the way in which for instance industry-specific rope constructions have evolved, from the classic 16-strand constructions through to the double braid construction used in many climbing lines today, the use of high-modulus fibres or the way in which terminations have evolved, from splices to stitchings or hybrid solutions, such as Teufelberger’s SLAICE termination.

Innovation can occur in two ways:

  1. Evolutionary innovations (continuous or dynamic evolutionary innovation) that are brought about by many incremental advances in technology or processes and
  2. revolutionary innovations (also called discontinuous innovations) which are often disruptive and new.

A good example for this was the way in which harnesses were being developed in the 1990’s. The market was really divided up between a couple of manufacturers, once a basic design had been established there was not much need to move forwards and no one was really attempting to think outside of the box, development had become incremental. This did not change much until Beddes came up with the treeMOTION concept, mid noughties, which incorporated a number of novel concepts, such as the complex front hardware linking upper and lower webbing elements and reducing pressure points by sharing the load amongst multiple levels of webbing.

These were definitively discontinuous innovations and led to a very different kind of harness to what had gone before. But obviously, having a good idea is one thing, actually bringing it to market is an entirely different cup of tea and takes a considerable amount of time and effort.

This is what Business Dictionary has to say on innovation:

Innovation is synonymous with risk-taking and organizations that create revolutionary products or technologies take on the greatest risk because they create new markets. Imitators take less risk because they will start with an innovator’s product and take a more effective approach.

A more effective approach in regards to price may well mean out-sourcing production to countries where labour costs are low, e.g. China or Vietnam. Is this what we want as an industry? I would like to think not, but the jury is still out on that one…

Over the years we have seen quite a few products that innovative manufacturers brought to the market being imitated and duplicated by competitors. This is a pity, as the burden of the (financial) risk is distributed unevenly, with the innovator carrying the majority  of the burden and the duplicator raking in the profit – without the initial financial risk. I am over-simplifying? Certainly, but none the less this is a trend you can observe when looking around booths of dealers at industry trade shows and events.

In the end it is important to remember that we do not innovate for innovation’s sake.

As John Hattie says, when we innovate, we step away from well-trodden, structured paths and become more aware of what works – and what does not. An innovation does not per se have to be new, rather it occurs when a person performs a conscious action to introduce a different, but not necessarily new method or strategy that differs from what is currently used. Again, to paraphrase Hattie, the point is not to be innovative, but rather to learn what makes the difference.

Sometimes this may be a full-on, all singing-all dancing, space age, technological solution – and other times it may be as simple as re-discovering/ remembering an old-school technique, such as the three-knot system or the pull-back technique.

Let us not become blinkered by a compulsive urge to innovate, let us reflect critically upon what is actually gained from a said innovation, to embrace true innovation when and where it occurs – but at the same time not to throw tried and tested techniques over board in a careless fashion.

Sorry, that ended up a bit more wordy than I originally intended.

Time for a picture…. have a unicorn, just to dumb this all down a bit.