The Power of Design Thinking and Hackathons

I’ve not blogged for a while so thought it would be nice to restart the blog on a positive note with a story about working with a new team of potential industry stars of the future at one of IBM’s clients.

Think Big.jpg

The focus of the blog is on the power of design thinking and hackathons (even small ones!) to turn ideas into compelling prototypes and stories.

Pets at Home is a leading UK based pet care retailer. The organisation has a fantastic focus on their customers and a great forward thinking attitude (a great recipe for innovation). Pets at Home and IBM have worked on a number of innovative projects in recent years and when I heard they’d started a new apprentice scheme focused on IT development skills I offered to set up and run a mini hackathon with the new team.


This resulted in a three day event. No horses were involved, although we did get to know Kevin the dog – see below. Day One focused on the team learning of a number of cloud development skills and tools, including an introduction of IBM Watson capabilities. This session was led by my IBM Cloud colleagues, Stephen Woolman and Brian Say.

I took over the lead on Day Two by facilitating a design thinking workshop focused around a typical customer journey. We created a persona of “Debbie”, a typical Pets customer, along with an empathy map so we began to understand her. Among the things we learned about Debbie was she had a rabbit, a new puppy called “Kevin” and two children.

Debbie’s puppy Kevin

We created an as is scenario covering Debbie’s visit to a Pets at Home store, ranging from first thoughts about her visit to activities after she had left the store. We identified a number of potential pain points and opportunity areas which could improve Debbie’s shopping journey and experience.

Big Ideas.jpgThe next step was to generate big ideas. Everyone was encouraged to develop ideas from their knowledge of the business, the empathy map, as is scenario and wider discussion. The team created many ideas, including as we hoped a few off the wall ones. I was beginning to see what a great team of the Pets at Home IT apprentices are. Their willingness to learn, passion for their business and creativity were all very clear.

We converged to assess the ideas as a team, grouping similar ones and mapping ideas to a prioritisation grid, balancing potential value (for Debbie and the business) with feasibility. Our focus was on developing a prototype in the next 36 hours! The team agreed four items which represented the best ideas to consider taking forward and finally selected two, the first to be worked on by “Team One” and the other by “Team Two”.

I don’t want to give too much detail away on the ideas but… One idea involved identifying and engaging both Debbie as the customer and Kevin as her pet when they arrived at the store. The second idea focused on engaging Debbie in a different way to provide key advice and guidance on topics such as pet nutrition (a key area of concern for Debbie as Kevin is still a young pup).

The solutions developed over the next day used a range of different tech in interesting combinations, including IBM Watson visual recognition and conversational capabilities. Key design considerations included customer privacy and data security.

Working with Stephen and Brian from the IBM team and a representative of one of Pets’ other partners, the apprentices worked their socks off to create a working capability through the afternoon and evening of Day Two and into Day Three.


One of the key messages in the Innovation Thinking and Practice undergraduate module I run at the University of Leeds is “you can have the best idea in the world but if you can’t communicate it it won’t go anywhere”. With this in mind, we interrupted the coding and testing to develop a storyline for how the two solutions would give value to Debbie and Kevin and deliver significant business value to Pets at Home.

Once again the apprentices proved to be quick learners. By the early afternoon of Day Three they had the prototypes ready to demo and stories ready to tell. I think the hardest bit of all for them was just before they presented to members of the Pets at Home IT leadership team, including the CIO… because actually when they demoed their solutions and told their stories it was clear they were developing great communication skills as well as technical ones. The team answered all questions confidently and said how much they wanted to take their ideas forward through to live deployment.

Design Thinking purple

Everyone thanked everyone else and the hackathon closed. All involved found it a hugely positive experience. My focus inside and outside IBM in the last few years has increasingly been on helping develop the next generation of technology / business professionals and it was a pleasure to work with the apprentice team of so early in their career journey. I look forward to seeing the apprentices flourish in the future and their prototypes develop into live capabilities in the coming months.


Innovation, Academia and Industry Thinking and Practice


I blogged in September about a new module I’ve been developing at the University of Leeds called Innovation Thinking and Practice. At the time I promised I’d blog again in December about the experience of running the module live and for real with students and here we are.

First up, I have to say this has been one of the best experiences of my working life. Yes, there have been trials and tribulations along the way. I wouldn’t have learned so much if there hadn’t been but what the students have developed and delivered in 10 weeks has been stunning.

The module has two focus areas. The first of course is innovation. The second is equally important – skill areas employers have told the Royal Academy of Engineering (sponsors of my Visiting Professorship) that new graduates often lack. This includes commercial awareness, collaboration and communication skills.

The module is based around 5 industry-based and very real innovation challenges. From the outset my academic partner Dr Lena Jaspersen and I split the students into 10 teams of 6. We built diversity into these teams by design. For example we have students from both the Business School and Engineering Computing School in each team.

LUBS3990 - Tony lecture.jpg

In the first week the students learned some of the key concepts of innovation, particularly from an enterprise and industry context. They met their teams and began to research their assigned industry and challenge. Over the next few weeks we worked them hard. They applied design thinking to understand their challenge, developed personas and empathy for their end users and generated ideas. Once the ideas were assessed and prioritised, each team selected one to focus on. We were then into rapid and initially paper-based prototyping, business value development and communications. You can have the best idea in the world but if you can’t communicate the idea and the value it will go nowhere, so this was a key aspect.

Business case

Supported by a great team of facilitators, the students delivered an initial presentation to the other team assigned with the same challenge. As expected, the ideas developed were diverse. There’s no right or wrong answer here, only great ideas. By this stage, I think the students, working very collaboratively in their teams, appreciated this.

Everything appeared to be going well – but innovation and real life in general aren’t linear processes. Stuff happens! I’m not going to share details and spoil the impact for future cohorts but stuff happens (by design) in this module. After some initial individual and collective reactions, the teams rallied. Their ideas got better and better.

We focused on rapid prototyping, including the key concept of minimum viable product. We debated “how much is enough?”. One of my IBM colleagues Gary Wilson ran a great workshop focused on innovative app development. In parallel the teams built layers of understanding and insight into what they were developing. They withstood grillings on their value propositions and businesses case. With a few tweaks, they stood up to scrutiny.

And then on 1st December 2017 we reached Week 10. The students were given an opportunity to present to a collective “innovation sponsor”. This was a panel of senior dragons from academia and wider industry, including representatives of the 5 industries the innovation challenges were based in.

Lena and I did much preparation for the final session. The students rehearsed and finessed their pitches. It started snowing the evening before and I began to get nervous but despite the early start on a Friday morning the teams and our guests were all there in the fantastic new collaborative teaching room in the Charles Thackrah Building in the University of Leeds. The students were briefed beforehand they must demo their prototype and articulate the business value. Other than that, there were no constraints on presentation format. They were free to innovate – and they did!

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The presentations were fantastic. Video clips, role play, props, paper prototypes, video animations, mock-ups, websites, apps, text and voice interfaces, brilliant injections of humour and even use of IBM Watson AI-based visual recognition software. It was all there. The teams articulated the value of their ideas to their business and the end user. Equally importantly, they confidently stood up to questioning from the guest panel.

Awards were made – based upon votes cast both by the academic and industry panel and the student themselves – but to me all the teams were winners. All 10 teams certainly nailed what was asked of them.

The picture below shows Team 4 receiving the Academic and Industry Panel award, accompanied by myself and Lena on the left, and the award presenters Sean Flanagan of IBM and Sarah Gummer of the Royal Academy of Engineering on the right.

LUBS3990 Winning Team Pic.jpg

To witness all the student teams communicate the technology and commercial innovations they’d collaboratively developed over such short space of time was inspiring. They’ve worked so hard and learned so much. I know many of the teams have hit hurdles on the way but that’s an integral part of the learning process. I also know most of the students had a lot of fun at times and have made new friends from outside their degree courses and circles.

We’d like to thank our brilliant panel of senior academics from across the University of Leeds and external industry guests. This combination of academic and industry expertise is a critical design point for the module. The students have gained huge value from presenting to the panel and from their insight and questions during (and in many cases after) the session. A number of guests indicated they’d like to follow up with specific teams and/or indicated they wish to be even more involved next year.

The feedback from the students before, during and after the final presentations has been hugely positive. As a first experience for myself of fully developing and delivering (rather than just inputting into) a module, I have loved working with such a great group. Their futures look very bright. For my own part, I’ve learned so much and benefited greatly from working with Lena and the wider Engineering Faculty Computing and Business School teams.

Uni of Leeds Uni of Year

The students will now be writing individual papers on what they’ve learned during the module, with an emphasis (of course!) on innovation, commercial awareness, collaboration and communication skills. In parallel, Lena and I are reviewing how we can make the module even better moving forward. For many reasons, not least this year’s cohort, the module has been a great success from the start but fundamentally this is about innovation. We can’t stand still – we need to keep learning and improving and that’s what we plan to do.

Innovation Thinking and Practice at the University of Leeds

I’ve just completed the first of a three year appointment as a Royal Academy of Engineering sponsored Visiting Professorship in Innovation at the University of Leeds. To date this has been a great experience. I’ve been involved in so many different activities. Probably the most important part of this role though is helping undergraduate students develop employ-ability skills. To help with this, I’ve been working with the team in Leeds to develop a new final year undergraduate module which we’ve called “Innovation Thinking and Practice“.

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The new module has a number of key design points –

  • Focus on innovation – plus wider employ-ability skills, such as commercial awareness, collaboration and communication skills
  • Grouping of students into diverse project teams – from different faculties and courses – such as Computing and Business Schools
  • Allocation of real industry innovation challenges to the teams – from which they must develop an idea, a prototype, a business case and “client” presentation
  • Weekly workshop-based sessions – which are partly lecture but mainly facilitated practical team working workshops

Over the summer I was busy, spending weekends developing the content. Since then September has been dominated by planning meetings with the great team at Leeds. Working alongside and learning from my brilliant new colleague Lena Jaspersen, I’ve had excellent interactions with the academic teams in Computing and Business Schools. We couldn’t have had better support from the Learning Enhancement and Innovation team who’ve guided us through setting up, populating and using the university’s VLE system and many new innovative tools and approaches.

As well as content planning and development, I know from experience the importance of getting the learning space and logistics right. And our timing couldn’t have been better. The Business School has just created a brand new collaborative learning room. It’s great to be part of one the very first modules to use it. Instead of a traditional lecture room, this space has a central lecture point surrounded by collaborative table-based work-spaces for project teams. We tried the facilities today and they couldn’t be much better suited to our needs.


The space is ideal as our weekly sessions with the students will consist roughly of one third lecture and two thirds practical workshop, where the student teams will apply design thinking, develop paper and potentially app-based prototypes, create business cases and value propositions development and present to their sponsors and potential investors. The work-spaces are ideal for all this and more. The students will also have access to use IBM’s Bluemix application development platform to create their innovative new apps should they wish.

The module starts on Friday September 29th and for the next 10 weeks the students will be addressing their innovation challenge, developing their deliverables, learning and hopefully having fun. We’re inviting a set of guests to the final session on the 1st December, when all the teams will present their solution to each other. The winning team will be selected by their peers, with some hopefully surprising but very nice prizes for them.

Light bulb brain

Having been involved from both ends in education at IBM, I’m hugely looking forward to seeing the student teams in action in the coming weeks. I think the focus on learning practical (as well as academic) skills with input from industry and a show not tell approach will set them in great stead to both find a great job and make a fast start in their chosen careers.

Watch out for another blog about how we get on in December.

Writing a novel alongside a full time job

Last year I released my debut novel Remember, Remember the 6th of November as Slide1an eBook – an exciting retelling of the tale of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. So exciting it seems the BBC are lining up a major drama this autumn along similar lines. I’m sure it’s just coincidence.

During most of 2016 I had the luxury of being on a sabbatical from my day job. This meant I could focus on writing, positioning it alongside various activities I took up part time, such as university collaborations, an archaeological dig and other stuff mentioned on this site.

Tony Radio InterviewIt was a fantastic time for me – writing and then promoting the book. I even managed to write another book about Collaborative Innovation (now published – I must make some time to blog about it) and completed the first outline of the sequel to “Remember, Remember” titled1617.

And then I went back to work… Thankfully, things have gone pretty well but making the time to complete, edit and re-edit 1617 has been a struggle. There’s been no problem with the inspiration, it’s the time factor which has been the challenge. I quickly realised there are are only physically twenty fours in a day. At times, tired though I may have been, I wanted a few more.

But I got there. At home, on trains and in hotels I finished the first edit and then a second. Mrs M, the saint she is, read the drafts and fed back several times. I got a book blogger to have a look at the first half. Oh dear, more work needed… This was done. During early summer (August was easier!) I shunned the weekend sunshine to drive a final reword and review and then did another. At last, I felt it was nearly there. One of my daughters again created the artwork. This time a flaming interpretation of the British Isles with Ireland, central to one of the key sub-plots of the book, standing out.

Keep Calm and Write a BookOver the last few weeks, I’ve done a few things. Firstly, I published (again on Amazon) a paperback version of Remember, Remember as a number of people said they’d love to buy it but can’t (or won’t) read an eBook (the digital revolution hasn’t reached everywhere yet). The good news is that this is already selling well – raising money for another good cause – more details below.

Secondly, I loaded 1617 onto Amazon…. but before I tell you about that, a little about the content. The book is set 12 years after the first and explores how the world may have been different if the Gunpowder Plot had had a different outcome. There are heroes, villains, secrets, treachery and a beautiful but deadly female French spy. There is a lot of historical fact but much more fiction this time. Mrs M says she prefers it to the first one, which is good enough for me.

Final Book Cover 1617Back to Amazon, last weekend I loaded it and hit the button, so you can now buy the eBook version of 1617 online from virtually anywhere in the world, which is nice. Even without any real promotion people have already started buying it and once again the profits this year for both books will go to charity – this time York Teaching Hospital Charity, which funds extras to make patients feel better beyond NHS spending, such as headscarves for chemotherapy patients and additional support for dementia and stroke patients.

So what can be better than that – you can buy a book and raise money for a good cause at the same time… And if it is as successful as the first one, I plan to write another. It will be something a little different next time. I already have the idea and I’m now starting on the research. Please do buy one or both of the books and if you can post a review onto Amazon as this does make a difference.

Many thanks until next time, Tony.

Is There Life After a Sabbatical?


As this blog was set up to focus on the experience of having a sabbatical break from the daily grind, I thought it might be interesting to write a little about the experience of going back to the day job.

It’s hard to believe but I’ve been back to work for almost nine months now. The time has flown by. For the first few months a lot of people said to me things like, “I can’t believe you’ve gone back”, “If I had a break like that I couldn’t go back to work.” and “How are you really finding it?”

I think they (and I) were a little surprised when I replied it was much easier than I thought it would be. This is not to say that the Sunday night before I went back was the most fun I’ve ever had… but I appear to have settled back in surprisingly easily.

A few things have helped. I was busy during the whole of my sabbatical – writing two novels, a book on innovation, helping to create and deliver a new university Masters module and so on. I came back to a different job as the IBM UK technical leader for Retail and Consumer Products industries. This has meant lots of new things to learn – clients, technologies, “contemporary skills” and industry insights. There’s nothing like being busy to keep you on your toes.

Tony Design Thinking 2

Lastly, I continued the interests I developed in my sabbatical, although (apart from my daily walk) if I’m honest I’d like to spend more time on these than I sometimes can. Editing work on my second novel has taken the biggest hit. It’s been a slow process but watch this space for some exciting announcements. The first novel, “Remember, Remember the 6th of November” should be out in paperback in September, in parallel with the e-book launch of the sequel “1617“.  And of course my “Collaborative Innovation” book was published by Business Expert Press earlier this year.

One thing I have ensured I make time for is my RA Eng Visiting Professorship with the University of Leeds. My most major task here has been the development of a new final year undergraduate module and I’m really proud of this. Innovation Thinking and Practice will begin in September and combines Computing, Business School and other students in teams to develop an innovation prototype and business case. Along the way the students will learn about innovation, design thinking, collaboration, communication skills and commercial awareness.


My favourite thing at work at the moment focuses on students too. This is an innovation project I’ve created focused on the supply chain challenges of a retailer which we’ve dubbed “Making the Invisible Visible”. The project is staffed by an amazing team of interns (don’t worry they do get paid). Myself, other mentors and a brilliant client team may help give them structure but they don’t need much else. Working with student interns is always a great experience and this team is one of the best.

Of course work-life balance is important. I’m fortunate to have a great and very supportive family and really good friends, some of whom I accompanied on a walking holiday in the Italian Dolomites recently. I had a great time and even if I decided that some (ok most) of the via ferrata was not for me it really is a magical area of the world.


Although I enjoy my job (most of the time), if I’m honest I work to live rather than live to work. In terms of surviving the return to work from my sabbatical the key for me has been twofold. Firstly I’ve been lucky enough to have an interesting job. Secondly I’ve made a determined effort to focus the rest of my time on the other things I enjoy, including those I had more time for during my break.

If you’re lucky enough to get the opportunity of a sabbatical I’d recommend you take it. At the end, you may even go back to work…!

Story of a Sabbatical


I’ve been extremely fortunate over the last 12 months to take advantage of the IBM Sabbatical Leave programme, where employees can apply to take time away from work to explore other activities and learn new skills.

On 7th November I go back to work, thankfully with few regrets. It has been a full on year, during which I’ve blogged regularly on what I’ve been up to. The objectives weren’t (only) to annoy those still at work but to share experiences and help anyone else considering doing something similar.

In any case, this is the last of my sabbatical blogs…

As I write, I’ve just re-read the blog written back in November 2015, where I laid out plans for the coming 12 months. I didn’t plan to travel extensively. You can describe what I’ve done as a stay-at-home gap year. But I did have a long wish list – quality time with the family, targeted holidays, music gigs, sports events, lots of walking, tennis, projects in the garden, visiting roles in universities, volunteering, creative writing and so on…

It was probably too long a list but I managed to get most of it done to some extent, apart from the tennis and some of the gardening projects and I’ve added in a few unexpected things too, such as writing a book on collaborative innovation and gaining an acute interest in early 17thCentury history…

The highlights have been many and varied –

  • Writing, self-publishing and finally (attempting to!) market my debut novel – which is raising funds for Save the Children and a local charity for flood victims – more details on the book here
  • Collaborating with universities – particularly the University of Leeds
  • Volunteering, along with my wife, on an archaeological dig
  • Experiencing the response of my local town of Tadcaster to the Boxing Day floods
  • Walking well over 1,000 miles

During the year out I’ve blogged on much of the above, so won’t repeat details here. Instead, I wanted to give a few quick hints and tips for anyone considering taking some time out. As you can see it’s not rocket science but what is (well, apart from rocket science)?

  1. Plan out what you want to do beforehand
  2. Prioritise some things over others – don’t try to do too much
  3. Don’t just lounge around – be active
  4. Enjoy yourself
  5. Give something back
  6. Plan for your return to work from day one – keep in touch with key people and with what’s going on – for example I’ve been keeping up to date with IBM Design Thinking
  7. Maintain some of the things you’ve got involved in after you go back to work – for me this will hopefully be university collaboration, daily walks and novel writing

If you are thinking of taking a sabbatical, my advice is go for it, enjoy it and make it an experience you won’t just remember but will stay with you, to some extent, when you go back to work.

A huge thank you to lots of people. Most of all to my wife, Su, but also to my two daughters, Bethan and Rhian, and wider family and friends – some of whom have probably seen too much of me over the last year, some maybe not enough because I packed in too much, friends and colleagues at IBM and our clients (see many of you soon!), my immediate management chain for enabling me to take this break, the great teams at the universities I’ve worked with and all those who’ve bought and/or supported my book.

A final word on the highlight of my sabbatical – the book. It’s called Remember, Remember the 6th of November and is a combination of historical novel, alternate history and contemporary thriller. The good news is that it has received a series of 5 star reviews on Amazon and is supporting two very good causes. You might like to follow this link and find out more… I’ve learned during the sabbatical that although writing and self publishing a novel take time, for me they were relatively easy. It is the marketing which is the real challenge… Please do buy a copy!

A Novel Idea

I’ve blogged a number of times during my sabbatical about writing a novel. As my sabbatical ends, I’m pleased to say the book is written, published, available on Amazon and thankfully gaining some very good reviews.

It really has been the backbone of my sabbatical. The inspiration for the story came during the first week of my sabbatical in November 2015 and the title includes the date of 6th November when I return to work in 2016 (although this year it’s a Sunday, so it will be Monday 7th when I’m back in the office) and in between there was a lot of work to write it, edit it and edit again. The last few weeks has been the hardest part, for me anyway, marketing it – getting onto local radio stations, articles in local newspapers, fliers, use of social media etc. But what is the inspiration for the story?


On November 5th 1605 a major terrorist atrocity was prevented in England. If this had not happened, King James I would have been killed, his government devastated and Parliament destroyed. The modern world we live in would be a very different place.

 Each year in the UK we celebrate the events of the Gunpowder Plot on November 5th with fireworks. We call it Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night but what was it really about?

In November 2015, I asked myself this very question and began to look into it. The more I read, the more fascinated I became. The parallels between England in 1605 and today were as alarming as they were interesting. It was a time of religious persecution, concerns over Europe and terrorism, not forgetting the issue of government surveillance. This was not carried out through computer hacking and cyber-security but by an army of government sanctioned watchers, informers and spies, all reporting into sinister Robert Cecil, a man who was Secretary of State, Spymaster General and Big Brother rolled into one.

In fact, it was the people which intrigued me the most. Cecil was one. It is rumoured he was having an affair with Katherine of Suffolk, wife of the King’s Lord Chamberlain. Cecil was also the right hand man of Scots Protestant King, James Stuart, a man who in turn was married to the beautiful Anne of Denmark, a woman who’d been pregnant almost for a decade and was in a constant struggle with her husband to gain custody of her children.

In 1605, the King led a renewed clampdown on England’s Catholics, despite earlier promises to the contrary, heightening tensions in the country and at home, for Anne was a Catholic. Her resentment was further fuelled by being refused the service of her best friend, Beatrix Ruthven, the brothers of whom had been brutally slain in Edinburgh on King James’s orders.

Then, of course we come to the plotters, incensed by this further persecution of their religion. We’ve all heard of brave and strong Guy Fawkes, with his Yorkshire background but, important as he was, he wasn’t the leader of the plotters. This was Robert Catesby, a complex but charismatic character, who over a series of months put together a cell made up of a dozen or more conspirators, some of them related, many from leading Catholic families and all committed to the cause of regime change in England.

Wow, I thought, what a story but then my mind began to play tricks on me. How would the world be altered if the Gunpowder Plot had had a different outcome? Would we put the King on top of the bonfire and not the Guy? Would the country have swung from Protestant extremism to the Protestant-burning ways of Catholic Queen Mary? Or would there have been a massive and bloody civil war, which nobody would have won, with the possible exception of an invading army from France or Spain?

Or could there have been a third way, one which may have led to a more tolerant society? It would seem unlikely but what if, what if, what if?

I posed these questions to Robert Cecil and Katherine of Suffolk and gave them free rein to do what they wanted. I hope you enjoy the results…

Remember, Remember, the 6th of November,

Gunpowder, celebration, the lot.

I see no reason, there are no reasons,

This day should be forgot.

Buy Now on Amazon for Only £1.99

If you are interested there is more information about the book and the good causes it is raising money for on the book’s website

Visiting Professorship in Innovation at University of Leeds

must-do-tick-listIn the last blog, I mentioned there were two key things to complete in my sabbatical “must do” list. One was to publish my debut novel (now done – Buy the book here!). The second was to build upon the relationship I’ve developed with academia to put in place something sustainable which I can continue to support alongside the day job, when I return to IBM in November.

I’ve previously blogged about my involvement with universities including Leeds, Reading and Loughborough, so won’t repeat it here. They are all great institutions but the one closest to my home and heart is the University of Leeds.

raeng-logoI was thinking about this earlier in the year, when I delivered a guest seminar at UCL for a Visiting Professor there. This was Hugh Varilly, a great man I’ve known for many years, from his days in IBM as a Distinguished Engineer. Hugh recommended I look into the highly regarded Visiting Professorship scheme run by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The RAEng scheme supports experienced engineers and technical leaders from industry to deliver face-to-face teaching and mentoring at a host institution for three years. The major focus is on enhancing the employability of Engineering students. The Visiting Professors are encouraged to also contribute to postgraduate teaching, curriculum development and sustain their impact beyond the three year time frame. This sounded like a great programme and aligned very much with what I wished to do.


Much of my engagement with the University of Leeds to date had been with the team in the Business School, working with Professor Krsto Pandza and his colleagues in areas related to innovation and the exploitation of emerging technologies to drive business value. A number of these activities directly supported students in both the Business School and the Faculty of Engineering.

In order to discuss the RAEng scheme in more detail, Prof Pandza and I spent time with Professor Peter Jimack, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering. We had a great discussion on how a Visiting Professor could support the employability of students across the five schools in the Engineering faculty by supplementing and supporting the excellent programmes already in place. We discussed ideas for modules and workshops and the need for engineering students to develop above-domain skills, particularly to assist with successful applications for placements and full time jobs and to enable engineers to make an impact once employed. These included innovation and design thinking, commercial awareness, collaboration and client facing skills.

To cut a long story short, we agreed to develop an application for the RAEng VP scheme. I’m delighted to say we’ve been successful and in September 2016 I was appointed RAEng sponsored Visiting Professor for Innovation at the University of Leeds.

Of course, the real work starts now. I’ll be involved in a new workshop, as part of the existing Employability programme led by Emily Timson. Work is starting with Professors Levesley and Pandza to verify potential for a new innovation module, integrating with existing and planned programmes. I’ll work with Assistant Prof Matthew Mount to teach the great new Innovation Management in Practice module (which brings together Engineering and Business School in a very innovative way) and many other things I’m sure.

One of the most positive things for me is that IBM recognises the value of collaborations like this – for the individual, the students, the University and for IBM and its clients too.


Lastly, I’d like to thank many people for their support over the last year and during the RAEng application process. There are too many to list here but they include Prof Pandza, Prof Jimack, Steve Legg in the IBM Universities programme, Hugh Varilly, Ian Nussey, the RAEng, IBM and University of Leeds teams in general. (Let’s hope I never get invited to the Oscars). Your advice, guidance and wisdom has been invaluable. I’m fortune to have such great support and I’m really looking forward to working with the brilliant team of academics, supporting staff and students at the University of Leeds over the next three years and hopefully beyond.

Meet the Author – Buy the Book – Adventures into Self Publishing

As my year long sabbatical reaches the final stages, I’m keen to complete two things on my “must do” list. One is related to university interests and I’ll cover in a future blog. The second is to complete my first novel and get it published so that people (if they want to) can read it.

slide1The novel, REMEMBER, REMEMBER THE 6TH OF NOVEMBER, is set at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. It explores the alarming parallels between the Britain of 1605 and today – concerns over Europe, terrorism and government surveillance. The story combines real life events with an alternative history view of a time when King James was persecuting England’s Catholics and Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters planned to blow up Parliament and kill the king. There are spies, plots, treachery and torture. I think of it as a contemporary thriller set in an earlier time.

I completed early edits of the novel and put it out for review by a local book club. Their feedback was fair, constructive and overall very positive. It helped me complete an additional cycle of editing in the summer.  I learned, from an author’s point of view, a book is never quite finished but you have to stop editing some time – so I did.

Hooray, the book was written but how could I get people to read it? I sent it to a small number of literary agents but as with JK Rowling and others, I received a polite “no thank you”. One approach (which led to the success of Harry Potter) is keep trying and send it to more agents.

bonfire-picHowever, I was working to a schedule. Firstly, I return to work on 6th November (note link to the book title). Secondly, it would be great if the book was available this year for the run up to Guy Fawkes Night on 5th November.

tadcaster-floodsThere was another consideration. I wanted to give something back as part of my sabbatical and selling a book can generate money without having to run a marathon or climb a mountain… All profits made from the book in 2016 will be shared equally between two very good causes – one local (Tadcaster Flood Support and Fundraising Group) and one national / international (Save the Children).

For these reasons, I opted to explore self-publishing and researched how to do this online. I read several posts saying the Amazon Kindle platform is hard to format your book for and everything takes a long time, etc etc which concerned me.

On the positive side, I found this helpful link, How to Quickly Publish to Kindle, which describes how to take content out of MS Word into a great package for writing called Scrivener and publish an e-book. As I’d already decided to use Scrivener, this simple article saved me lots of time. Very quickly, my book was compiled into multiple e-book formats and if I say so myself (with my daughter’s artwork for the cover) it looked quite good on the previewer software.
quill-1cThe book was ready… Last weekend I went onto the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing website and reviewed the details, set up an account and published the book over a few hours. It was surprisingly straight forward. Once this was done, I sent an email to a dozen people I trust and asked them to have a look at the book and let me know what they think. They’ve been great as almost all of them bought a copy and I know many are already reading it (thank you!).

What now? The hard work proper starts. With the book available – links below – I need to work out how best to promote it so people know about it, buy it and read it. This is a key activity. I have lots of ideas which I plan to soon follow up on but I’m keen to learn from others – your hints, tips and ideas are very welcome.

Finally, I can’t end this blog without asking you to buy the book to raise funds for the two very good causes. If you do, please let me know what you think and if appropriate post a positive review on Amazon for those who come after you.

Many other country Amazon Stores available

Follow the story unfold in the coming weeks

Find out more and read interview with the author

Many thanks, Tony.

Empathy, Empathy… through Design Thinking

I believe Design Thinking is very important. This must be true because despite the great weather I took a break from my sabbatical in July 2016 to attend an education event on applying IBM Design Thinking to collaborative services engagements between clients and suppliers.

To mis-quote Shakespeare and the Carry On films I personally think the slogan of Design Thinking should be Empathy, empathy, they’ve all got it empathy…

We’ve all seen great technical solutions which aren’t effective because insufficient consideration was given to how they would be used. The key to Design Thinking is simple – absolute importance on focusing on the people. You have to talk to them, work with them, understand them. Design Thinking and IBM’s own IBM Design Thinking provide a great set of tools, techniques and approaches to do this. Visit the IBM Design Thinking web pages to find out more.

Over the last two years we’ve incorporated increasing focus on IBM Design Thinking in our internal IBM Client Innovation Master Classes. They provide a set of new and indispensable tools to add to the client facing technical professional’s innovation kit bag. Outside IBM, one of the modules I support as part of my Visiting role at the University of Leeds in the Global Innovation Management program also includes focus on Design Thinking.

Back to the class on using IBM Design Thinking for services engagements… Now, you may ask “Design Thinking is great but isn’t it really about driving end user centric design of new products and apps?”. My view is that Design Thinking and IBM Design Thinking in particular can be applied in many many contexts and it is the context which is key.

Sharpie and Post Its

Whether designing a new service, working on a services sales engagement or co-developing with a client how the service will be implemented, run and managed, it should still always be about the people – and using a variety of IBM Design Thinking tools and approaches will ensure what is designed, sold and/or delivered will be what the people (client team, supplier team and most importantly the internal or external users or customers of the service) need, want and value.

Thanks to Danny, Ian, Sarah and Doug for a great class which really highlighted how IBM Design Thinking can be applied in a services context.

Lastly I was still on sabbatical and the weather was great so I did get outside at lunchtime and found a lovely walk very near to IBM Warwick (pictures below).