What Graeme Obree, the Flying Scotsman, can teach us about workplace innovation

What Graeme Obree, the Flying Scotsman can teach us about workplace innovation

Innovation is one of the over-used words in the UK built environment. In fact, it is used so much that its true meaning is being left behind by marketing teams and spin doctors. The real definition is about a new method, idea, product, i.e. some form of technological innovation. Think about the last time you read of a claim for an innovative product, method or management concept. How new was it really? Often ‘innovation’ is more to do with the Emperor’s clothes than an effective new method or a radical product that changes a manufacturing process or reduces carbon, or just makes life and work more efficient.

It is worth noting that many aspects of workplace design that are aimed at being more productive and claim to be innovative are all linked to Taylorism and in fact are not new at all – many are positively Dickensian.

Anyone seeking innovation is better off trying to solve a problem, or deal with a challenge. Cycling is a good example – in the Olympics or Tour de France the challenge is go faster. One innovation that has stood the test of time is the rider’s position during the time trial.

They ride in as aerodynamic a position as possible, gripping narrow bars extending from the handlebars to extend their arms and lower their heads into a shape over which air flows smoothly – allowing them to move faster. Greg Lemond famously used these ‘triathlon’ handlebars for the first time in 1989 to beat his rival Laurent Fignon by eight seconds. But these new handlebars started with one cyclist, fixing blocks of wood to his bike as an experiment to go faster.

When he broke The Hour record in 1993 and 1995, Graeme Obree, the Flying Scotsman, tried a variety of positions on the bike such as Superman (arms outstretched) and another with his shoulders hunched and arms tucked under his body in what was uncomfortable, unstable but very, very fast. But his innovations didn’t end there. His legend was his bike – rumoured to be made from household consumer goods and scrap.

Right now, Obree is pursuing the human powered vehicle (HPV) world speed record. Once again, he has made a machine himself without commercial backing from mainstream bike manufacturers.  It is an all-enclosed design of sleek fibreglass and Kevlar outer skin painted in light blue, but Obree has struggled to breathe in enough air. A typical Obree solution has been found – a small air intake has been added to the nose of the fairing connected to a sink waste pipe, which Obree places in his mouth via an attached snorkel mouthpiece.

That’s innovation. If we can come up with similar thinking in the workplace we are onto a winner, especially in this heat.


andrew-brownAndrew Brown is a writer and consultant with communications consultancy Frank and Brown. He previously led the in-house team at Alfred McAlpine and is a former editor of FMX magazine.