Pressure Cookers for business

Pressure Cookers for business

I was recently given a glimpse of Springboard – the 13-week Cambridge based Accelerator – in operation, which set me wondering what might be the next developments in processes or programmes for the development of innovations and new businesses. I suggest here that some will be longer and some shorter; they will become specialised to different fields; longer ones will be split up into smaller bites; learning will be personal and on-the-job; and mentoring will become a team effort.


From their origins in the 1940s to their latest embodiment as Accelerators in 2011, ‘Pressure Cookers’ in business have been getting longer and longer; but there are some that are even longer than these 13-week Accelerator programmes. So what will happen to the concept of the Pressure Cooker? How will it change and develop?


From Brainstorm to Bootcamp

Brainstorms, first described by Sydney Parnes in 1942, were initially short periods, perhaps of hours, devoted to generating ideas – for solving a particular problem. Synectics’ work and the famous CIPSE programmes at State University at Buffalo expanded their scope – by starting the process of the brainstorm by addressing the need to identify the right problem, and finishing it by sorting and identifying the best solutions.

The concept of the Future Center as a place where people could

come together to solve problems in the context of the future,

originated in Scandinavia in 1996 and took hold quickly in continental Europe, appearing first in the UK in the late-1990s in the shape of iconic Royal Mail’s Creativity Lab at Rugby, where day-long workshops on creativity and innovation were focused both on problems and on new product development. (See also ‘Innovation Workshops: what they do and how they do it’

In the US, the consultancy IDEO had espoused this more comprehen-sive approach to new product development, which was epitomised by the film of their work on a week-long project that was shown in 1998 on NBC Newsnite (

The ‘pressure cooker’ process began to take a more extended form in the UK when BT’s R&D adopted a new stage-gate format under which all the project teams worked to 13-week stages, each new stage being launched with a ‘Hothouse’ – a 3-day creative problem-solving session. 

The BBC in 2002 was among the first to run week-long programmes in the UK – their Watering Holes, based on what they had seen at Stanford Research Institute, were aimed at developing and selecting ideas for new programmes. By 2004, the Research Councils, led by EPSRC, had adopted a similar approach – a week-long project, but for identifying areas and opportunities for future research, and initiating projects to tackle them (see as above in ‘Innovation workshops’ In 2007, Seedcamps set up their stall (, whose objective in running week-long programmes was to develop concepts for new businesses and support the selection of promising entrepreneurs.


Accelerators of different sorts and kinds

Since then the concept of a development process has burst open with the arrival in the UK from the US of Accelerators – 13 week programmes for small groups of entrepreneurs (see ‘The Startup Factories’, Nesta 2011; Some Accelerators, like Springboard ( are primarily about developing concepts for new businesses, others like Accelerator Academy ( are more oriented to developing the capabilities of their entrepreneurs; and others like Bethnal Green Ventures ( are more about identifying and developing concepts for social enterprise. All of them include an opportunity to select the best for the next stage of development, many of them also providers of further funding for doing so.

There are other fields in which the product requires longer periods of development before its benefits can be tested. Rockhold in the US, backed by corporate healthcare organisations, has a 5-month process for the development of IT applications in hospitals and other healthcare sites, and GlaxoSmithKline has recently adopted a new research structure consisting of focused inter-disciplinary teams – which bid to Dragons’ Den type events for further funding at the end of 3-year periods (for a description, see


And what might the next developments be?

*         The length of Accelerators might become more closely adapted to

     their objectives, perhaps 6 and 12 months becoming as common as

     13-week programmes.

*        Longer programmes could be divided up into smaller segments, in

          each of which the pressure would be more intensive (as at BT).

*         Participants may well become more closely matched to each other – in

     terms of experience and nature of the project (as in the Arts Council/ 

     Watershed’s research project with Pervasive Media in the theatre.)

*         One consequence of this would be that collaboration and learning

     from each other will become a more dominant them; and will be more

     closely adapted to the needs of individuals.

*         And we can expect mentors to be more closely matched to project

     stages and to entrepreneurs; and they will act more as a team – more   


In the face of evidence that tight control of such projects leads to early death, we can however predict that freedom and play will remain key elements in the pressure-cooker process. 


John Whatmore                                  The Centre for Leadership in Creativity

February 2012                                                           In association with Nesta                                                



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