‘Come up with crazy ideas .
“You have to try to build a culture where people can feel safe to come up with crazy ideas. Stupid ideas are the best ones.”
The words of John Hunter, advanced completions director at Tendeka in Aberdeen.
Days after winning an award for innovation at the Press and Journal Gold Awards, he looks slightly more at home leaning back in a chair at the engineering firm’s flagship headquarters in Westhill.
Dressed casually in a T-shirt and trousers, he admits he was “uncomfortable” wearing his dinner jacket when at the awards bash.
Apple pioneer Steve Jobs famously eschewed formal attire later in life in favour of his turtleneck and jeans and it’s not long before Hunter drops his name into the conversation, referencing the late technology tsar’s tendency to cherry pick other peoples’ good ideas.
Hunter said: “There’s only two things you need if you want your team to be innovative. You need to have permission to do it. And you need to feel safe.”
With that in mind, Hunter is leading a quiet revolution behind the doors of Vanguard House.
Earlier this year he took several employees, stripped away their titles and put them in a room together with a problem.
Some time itself.
The resultant Spark Club, named after the premise of an idea being ‘sparked’, is now a regular occurrence at the firm.
Hunter said: “It came from a number of people leaving the business, who had ideas for some of the projects we’d had and the realisation that if we didn’t do something we may not be able to develop our own products internally.
“We started the club to give everyone in the company a chance to be involved in these things. later, the solution presented
“We don’t need huge innovative changes, we need lots of little ideas. They all turn into big things eventually.”
Working primarily in the down-hole completion market, the challenge focused on how to develop batteries that can make their devices last longer.
And by encouraging everyone from management – who turned down the offer amid fear of stifling creativity – to health and safety staff to take part in the sessions, Hunter has managed to bring in fresh eyes to old problems, with great success.
He said: “One of the issues that we will face, and the market will face, as we get more wireless equipment down-hole and we move towards a digital oilfield, is batteries.
“These technologies all rely on the same batteries and as the temperature rises they don’t last all that long. To get seven years out of a wireless device is quiet good and wells tend to last longer than that. “We threw that idea out there. “Lots of ideas, some really sound. But two people, both non-technical, came up with the idea.”
The solution, now a filed patent, was simple enough once found. As all great ideas are, Hunter said.
“It will be a game-changing product when it hits the market in a few years, facilitating long-term wireless completions.”
Tendeka is kicking off the research programme later this year which will focus on mixing the battery chemicals down-hole as and when power is required.
The next Spark Club session will focus on existing technology, and where it might be applied outside of its original purpose.
Hunter said: “So we’ve got this piece of cool kit but we think it has more uses. So we’ll throw that out there.
“They might come up with an idea, they might not. But they might come up with something in a few months. Hopefully these things will stick in people’s minds.”
It’s all part of Tendeka’s digital vision, born out of the difficulties of the oil and gas downturn.
Hunter said: “As a company in the downturn we basically had two choices. One was to cut people and to cut costs. We have had to do that. The other one was looking at what we want to be as a business when the market picked up and levelled off. As a business we want to grow and develop.”
This involved protecting and growing the firm’s research and development department and bringing together the technical teams under one roof at the new office.
The result is conversations tak-