Book Worming: ‘A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change’
Occasionally we find a book worth mentioning. We’ll do our best to share both the good and the bad, with a healthy dose of interpretation of how you can leverage the concepts as an Osmotic Innovator.
Douglas Thomas and John Seely Browns’ take on changing ways of learning and educating might seem like a stretch for the Osmotic Innovator, until one considers the fact that innovation is at its heart all about learning in order to explore and combine disparate items to create something new. Thomas and Brown realize this, beginning the book by calling out the fact that learning is no longer confined to the classroom – that ‘it is happening all around us, everywhere, and it is powerful . . . it is grounded in a very simple question. What happens to learning when we move from the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the tweny-first century?’
For the Osmotic Innovator, this seems like a potentially powerful concept. If learning has been reassessed as advertised, how can this be leveraged to better enable your current employees and how will this change the way that the next generation of recruits to your team works? And further, given that the pace of change in learning has grown exponentially faster, how can firms cope, not only surviving a potential onslaught of innovation but thriving and growing with it?
Unfortunately, the book fails to deliver fully against some of the most exciting questions and possibilities from this perspective. It does however give the reader a new frame of reference to view the process of learning. This new point-of-view could be very valuable in the hands of the Osmotic Innovator.
Thomas and Browns’ description – backed up consistently through the book – that ‘The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is a massive information network that provides limitless access and resources . . . The second is a bounded and structured environment that allows for unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries. . . It is the combination of the two, and the interplay between them, that makes the new culture of learning so powerful’ is a particularly compelling notion.
Building on this, the authors seek to support the case that ‘teaching’ is no longer the predominant mechanism for growth. Instead, ‘learning’, where students play, interact, and create a culture from and through the process of learning, is the new effective environment for growth. Importantly, and recognizable to the Osmotic Innovator, is that the new culture derives its strength from its focus on learning through engagement with the world. It is this outward looking view that makes most sense through the book and resonates with changes in our world culture (see The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century). The notion that to succeed in this era one needs to look outwardly, engaging with consumers, suppliers, and potential competitors, aligns with much of what we understand about Open Innovation. In calling out the biggest dysfunction with the previous worldview Thomas and Brown could be describing the old era of innovation equally well; ‘the major pitfall of the twenty-first century’s teaching model – namely, the belief that most of what we know will remain relatively unchanged for a long enough period of time to be worth the effort of transferring it.’
Though Thomas and Brown make a few connections between this new model for education and the world of business through the remainder of the book, often connecting with insights that would be recognizable to anyone spending time seriously thinking and considering innovation, they fail to really expound on the model and directly connect it to much of the world outside the classroom. This is where the book seems to miss an opportunity; by becoming overly bound to trying to prove the existence of the model through repetitive examples of it they miss the opportunity to apply it (or project how it could be applied) to the larger world they give the occasional nod to.
It should be rather easy though to apply the lessons of this book. The arguments made in the book could well be reframed as calls to action for the innovator; power isn’t in knowing the answer, but where to find the answer; you can learn more from taking the wrong approach than the right; inquiry is the process of asking “what don’t we know.”
The message and codification of ‘play’ as a learning technique for the 21st century is a powerful one, Beyond the realm of education it gives direction to the Osmotic Innovator about the bounty to be reaped for those who learn how to connect play and imagination in fruitful ways. As Thomas and Brown say themselves ‘the culture that emerges . . . is a culture of collective inquiry that harnesses the resources of the network and transforms them . . . only when we care about experimentation, play, and questions more than efficiency, outcomes, and answers do we have a space that is truly open to the imagination.’
Creative spaces are often cited as examples of how the most innovative companies take their creative processes seriously. We have all heard of the efforts of Pixar to ensure maximum creativity from their staff through the design of their building to maximize unscripted interactions, from centralized bathrooms to freedom to decorate your workspace Pixar lives creativity and its employees wear it on their sleeves. Should your company investigate creative spaces as a means of improving innovation? The answer is not so simple.
The problem of how to organize a physical space to drive innovation is a well-known one, having spawned numerous books (see The Organization and Architecture of Innovation by Allen and Henn) and consultancies. Having spent decades maximizing the value captured from efficiency in the ‘organizational diagram’ leaders were bound to recognize that the layout of the actual physical space is equally important to drive productivity and, ultimately, innovation. The problem with implementing the biggest and boldest suggestions to boost innovation and productivity is that it necessitates huge expenditures of capital in order to refurbish old spaces to new layouts. Obviously, this isn’t always compatible with budget or other goals – thus the appearance of ‘Creativity Spaces’!
In order to meet the demand for a place within the office environment where workers can think freely and openly – trying to capture that eureka-in-the-shower moment – old meetings rooms get refurbished with TVs, games, bold colors, and comfy chairs. These places can be easily dismissed as places to waste time. However, for the relatively limited capital requirements they have to be considered as a positive first step. Just having one place in the office that doesn’t feel like the office can encourage teams and meeting groups to think more freely and creatively. Many articles on this blog advocate drastic steps to get free thinking and creativity into your team; the message that should be taken forward is that anything you can do to shake things up and break people out of their typical role is great for boosting innovative output. Doesn’t that align perfectly with having your lead chemist showing everyone their newest moves on Dance Dance Revolution? For the Osmotic Innovator making do with less is an art form – perhaps Creativity Spaces aren’t a Picasso but they’re at least an easel and a brush.
Creative spaces are really the result of creative cultures. When people work in a creative culture they build their own creative spaces and in some instances these spaces may not even look (to the casual observer) very creative at all. We are talking about the water cooler, the original “creative space”. “If you build a creative culture the culture will build their creative space” is probably a better approach for most businesses to take. Without the right culture the creative space discussion shouldn’t even be started.
Can you really define what a creative space should be for your business? What works for Pixar might be useless for your company. Can a laboratory or engineering shop be a “creative space”? Sure it can, and in many companies these areas are far more likely to be creative than any artificially designed space of bright colours and soft furnishings. Don’t fall for the idea that if it looks fun then it must be creative; many companies have demonstrated phenomenal creative endeavour simply by giving their employees access to the same old facilities but without corporate agenda.
Creative spaces must be built; your work environment is unlikely to have been designed with creativity in mind. Creativity feeds off networking so is there a way of causing more cross functional interactions within your employees without going to the extremes of building redesign? Maybe careful placement of coffee bars or mixed function open plan offices would work better than prescribed “creative spaces”.
Overall the design of creative spaces within corporations should be seen as a means of reinforcing a strong corporate innovation culture, not as a means of creating one. There are many more cost effective ways of doing that.
In a recent feature at Big Think Daniel Honan detailed an ongoing shift within the field of biology – a move away from strictly compartmentalized disciplinary boundaries within large university and public R&D laboratories to smaller, more nimble inter-disciplinary labs. In discussing the featured example, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL), Honan describes the opportunities that mixing scientists of varied background in an open lab will provide. In a number of ways, this new lab paradigm mirrors what needs to happen for corporations to, as stated by Kevin Strange, head of the MDIBL, “speed the pace and reduce the cost of discovery.” In revamping what used to be a seasonal lab into a medium-sized academic unit with a budget of $10 million and a staff of 50 employees of varied background Strange has created a very powerful incubator for innovation.
In the face of continued cut-backs to R&D many leaders in corporate environments are struggling to do more with less. Besides utilizing the principles of open innovation to leverage knowledge outside the firm, perhaps there are some other lessons to be learned from the above example to assist the Osmotic Innovator in building an innovative and productive team.
Unfortunately for the corporate innovator, creating and moving a cross-disciplinary team of 50 to a remote lab to accelerate the pace of innovation isn’t likely to be met with much enthusiasm from your superiors. Start-ups, with narrow budgets and a bee-line focus on commercialization in the current VC culture, are unlikely to have the necessary breadth to emulate this model even if they have advantages in their location. So, how could this model be recreated within the corporate environment AND targeted toward meaningful innovation within a company’s strategy?
– Hire the right people: it has been discussed on this blog before, but it is important to rehash the importance of building a team having a wide variety of skill sets. However, this principle needs to go further than just hiring one Chemist instead of a Biologist or a fresh out-of-school generalist in place of a 20 year specialist. People of varied backgrounds and viewpoints are also necessary to build a culture that can support innovation.
– Make collaboration a necessity: the MDIBL forces its scientists to collaborate in order to move science forward and survive in the ‘publish or perish’ atmosphere of academia. The Osmotic Innovator has a number of tools to execute this, from the straightforward, such as arranging project teams to fit the model, or to the indirect, such as rearranging the floor plan to encourage spontaneous interactions.
– Encourage experimentation: 3M famously does this by giving researchers a set amount of time to pursue personal interests, even without a commitment to such large fractions of time innovation competitions or challenges can build this type of thinking.
– Find a way to be agile: Process is important, but having the ability to rapidly change focus, whether it be a large initiative or small project, is equally important when trying to improve the capacity to innovate. Be willing to scrap process when reasonable to boost your teams’ effectiveness in responding to new challenges or opportunities.
Organizing and operating exactly like a small research facility is perhaps an idealized view of how a research department or company can operate. However, there are a number of lessons in these models that we can learn from and leverage within our teams to improve the capacity to innovate even without massive budgets or staffs. The next time you’re wondering how a small academic unit scores big with an important discovery in the face of diminishing resources, think instead about how you can emulate their best characteristics within your team.
Subcultures are often thought of in a corporate environment as evidence of fragmentation of the organization or a failing of management to impart a compelling collective vision. Some have argued that strong organizational cultures, where members agree and care about an organizations values, almost preclude the formation of subcultures. There is significant evidence however, that even within the most successful organizational cultures there can exist, and sometimes must exist, strong subcultures in order to provide the mechanism for adaptation and change. In the same way that the innovative company creates change in the world, the innovative sub-culture creates change within a company.
The evidence for subcultures within your organization will be all around you. A few years ago I had an opportunity to meet with a large advertising agency and spent a few hours observing the differences between the very diverse people that can populate that industry. What struck me most were the well defined dress styles that each group adhered to in order to define themselves as being part of their own subculture. The creative tribe had their style (well pierced street fashion) and the business development tribe had their style (no tattoos, no jewellery, nice suits)and it was immediately obvious who was who. Returning to my office later in the day I could see the same tribal dress (with much reduced flamboyance) in the staff I spent most of my time with.
In some instances companies rationalize subcultures as the price of doing business, “you can’t expect artists to wear suits” or “you have to supply programmers with mini refrigerators” are themes that we might be familiar with but which infer that subcultures are necessary but not ideal. Looking at some of the more diverse organizations however we often see examples of subcultures being nurtured, not just reluctantly accepted, maybe the most successful example would be Lockheed’s Skunk Works group. Can other large corporations learn from this?
Subcultures and Corporate Innovation
In most corporate environments innovation is not a priority for all employees. No matter how sensationally the “We are Innovative” PR machine spins, when pressed we all have to admit that an extremely large proportion of our collective time is spent maintaining the status quo. We all work in extremely competitive environments and to ignore the effort that is required just to avoid going backwards is an injustice on those who have this as their primary responsibility.
One concept we love at Osmotic Innovation is that corporate innovation is best done by those who choose it, rather than those conscripted. How this concept can manifest within the organization is the formation of ad-hoc innovation teams, matrix managed programs, skunkworks (in the adopted sense) and the many people from operations outside of formal innovation roles collectively bringing their ideas to life.
How then can the Osmotic Innovator use subcultures to support and nurture innovation within an organization? Rather than taking the direct (and somewhat ambitious) approach of trying to generate sub cultures themselves perhaps it is simply a matter of loosening up. Subcultures will form where a group of people have a shared opinion that differs from the collective paradigm. Where they flourish is in environments where they are allowed to express their differences, that is, where an organization lets them and encourages them to be different. Innovation as we mentioned earlier is by and large a fringe activity within most large organizations and so is an ideal activity to be the rallying point for sub culture formation. By loosening up some of the organizational cultural norms the Osmotic Innovator empowers the subculture to define itself and thus achieve in the light of day rather than in secret. Your innovators will identify themselves if you allow them to; just give them their own space, their own time or simply the freedom to dress themselves in the morning.
 Alicia Boisnier, Jennifer A. Chatman The Role of Subcultures in Agile Organizations. Accessed Sep 2012. http://www.hbs.edu/research/facpubs/workingpapers/papers2/0102/02-091.pdf
Innovation projects within corporations can take a long time, a really long time. These projects often involve lots of people and even numerous ownership changes along the way as different specialist groups contribute their skills. Managers are very much aware of this however and have any number of great modern inventions to manage the risks associated with long project leads, knowledge transfer and project ownership. Just think of the highly detailed Gantt charts, the agile management tools, the strategy meeting minutes and risk analysis reports that reside on your corporate servers, all testament to the pinnacle of project management that we have reached in the early 21st century. Because of all these modern tools it is now impossible for a project to deviate off course, to lose its way and end up in a place that was not intended. Modern project management techniques ensure that we always deliver what we started out to deliver and the economy and the world is a better place for this. Wait…what?
So, I expect that you agreed with most of the above paragraph until maybe the last few sentences. Most of us have experienced a project deviating from its goal, maybe through a slow erosion of the understanding of the original intention, claim creep over time or a simple loss of way due to personnel change at a key juncture. In our arsenal of modern project management tools is there something missing that might help us eliminate this issue? If not, should we be developing something? I suggest that there is a tool that can be used to help corporations but that it won’t be found in Silicon Valley. The tool is as old as humanity and within us all to develop. It is the art of storytelling.
Throughout history humans have managed projects. Our earliest projects may have been something like relocation of tribal groups or the exploitation of newly found food sources. During this time the project management tool most often used was storytelling (Note: This is an assumption the author has made based on the lack of Neolithic cave paintings depicting Gantt charts). Storytelling allowed complex themes with numerous important yet discrete facets to be remembered because it provided context and a relationship between the discrete elements of the theme. If Timmy isn’t stuck down the well, Lassie is just a dog running around barking and doesn’t make sense.
So how can we incorporate storytelling into our project management programs? The solution is to first think about what modern storytelling looks like. In the context of a consumer product, the story might take the form of an advertisement, maybe in video or billboard form. It could take the form of a written consumer concept or a cartoon describing the experience of the consumer. A service story might be told through the written diary of a satisfied client or mock interview. In many cases our companies are quite adept at making these stories; we just tend to make them once a project is nearing completion which renders the use of the story as project management tool redundant. The key thing that any storytelling tool should do is allow for a simple, understandable way to communicate project goals and underpinnings to new team members or management reviewers. It should enthrall and energize the project and ensure that throughout the various personnel transitions each new member champions and rallies around the common and original goal. Next time you kick off a big project consider developing some story media early on in the process, you will be surprised at the effect it can have.
When most companies build their staff they focus on identifying the best talent in their industry, proudly trumpeting this as both a reason to join their company and for stockholders to take heart in their capacity to stay ahead of the competition. As discussed previously in this blog this can lead to a very narrow focus within a team, limiting diversity of thought. Can an organization work around this by finding someone that can force teams to stretch outside their comfort zones while still being a productive and regular member of the team?
In fact, the skills required for this role have been recognized for millennia. In mythology, stories are full of trickster gods that challenged the status quo, whose role seemed on the surface to be spreading discord. Take Loki from Norse mythology. In the stories, he appears to fill many roles and is even able to take many forms as a shape shifter. His role is not to govern but rather to disrupt and to agitate. Alternately the other gods love and hate him. The role of Loki is as an antagonist – his appearance in a story drives it forward and forces the other gods to take action. Even today scholars debate his intent in the stories – his presence still causing discord, discussion, and ultimately ideation. The trickster figure is complicated in myth – they are often seen as rule breakers, sometimes malicious and sometimes not, but often to positive effect. They are problem solvers and deliver solutions – often times being the source of the innovation of fire.
Even the stolid courts of the medieval period recognized this skill: the “fool” was expected to not only be funny, but to also deliver insightful and truthful commentary that would allow the leaders to more thoroughly see the world. This was the living embodiment of the trickster, an antagonist that creates change through disruption.
But what type of person can serve as the trickster or fool on your team? How can a person like this fit without being a disruption to the team and group dynamic. I would propose that this role can be filled by what we’d know as a generalist. The generalist is an individual with broad knowledge. Much like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin they can fill multiple roles and careers in their life, having interests as broad as writing a new bible, creating a university, and governing the nation in the former case and writing and publishing (including the everything-you-ever-needed-to-know Poor Richard’s Almanack), amateur science, and diplomacy in the later case. The generalist has knowledge on a variety of topics, being conversant in them while having the ability to learn and acquire subject matter expertise quickly in order to leverage their broad base of knowledge.
The generalist must also have the confidence to speak up. This is because the generalist also benefits through naivety – unencumbered by the certain knowledge of the status quo they are able to call it as they see it. When an idea has no clothes, but those close to the industry or technology are unable to recognize it, the generalist can demonstrate true sight, asking questions and revealing truth that will allow others to recognize something that can (with hindsight) seem rather obvious.
Retaining this skill is difficult though. The generalist is at a disadvantage to peers with expertise and experience in a field and needs to have the confidence and personality to speak their mind in the face of a well-organized and entrenched opposition. Further, the complex nature of the Fools role requires them to be a very special individual, curious enough to question every detail, competent enough to understand a vast array of topics, skilled in communication to deliver their true message, and social enough to be welcomed into a team without being a threat. Ignoring this critical role can ensure that your team smoothly rockets toward mediocre innovation. Having a powerful voice in this role can boost the productivity and quality of output exponentially. The successful Osmotic Innovator knows how much resource a fool can save through practical knowledge, common sense, and deep insight. The question isn’t how to get rid of the fool on their team, but how to get more of them.
Innovation within corporate environments is a bit like a Roman Galley, everyone has an oar but only a few are pulling really hard. The size of corporations means that it is very difficult to know whether everyone is giving their all in terms of creativity. Many corporations don’t even try to evaluate the creative effort of the majority of their employees, preferring instead to measure a select few “innovators” and to hope that the rest are doing their part. If, when looking at your corporation, you accept that you cannot tell if everyone is pulling to their creative limit, then you have to ask yourself “why wouldn’t they?”
Anyone who has been in a role where they are responsible for product innovation is probably aware of the change that happens over time to your relationship with the ideas that you generate. This change fundamentally exists in the level of attachment your ego and your ideas have to each other. Early in your career you may remember how important each idea was to you and how personal each failed idea felt. Your ideas were a reflection of you and your worth. However, over time this attachment breaks down and you realize that of all the millions of reasons for an idea to be rejected none have anything to do with your personal value. You also begin to realize how deep the well of ideas available to you really is and how little importance any individual idea has. If we can recognize this in ourselves how can we use this knowledge to create stronger innovation cultures within our corporations? One approach is to learn from a master, in this case Mr Miyagi.
The year is 1984, a young Daniel LaRusso, recently relocated from Newark asks a kindly karate master “Mr Miyagi” to train him in the martial art. Miyagi agrees and immediately puts him to work painting his house, sanding his floors and waxing his car – “Daniel san, wax on, wax off”. We then learn that Miyagi is teaching Daniel defence; the action of waxing defends Daniel from a punch and is the most important thing for him to learn early in his Karate training. Would Daniel have returned to Miyagi day after day if his tutor repeatedly punched him in the face hoping that he would eventually figure out how to defend himself? Unlikely.
Why would we expect nascent innovators to return to the process of innovating after receiving the personal attack of idea rejection? Innovation requires practice and the best practice early on is defence. Build up the capacity of your innovators to take rejection and learn from mistakes by sharing your own historical blunders. Nurture your creative groups and protect them from feeling personally rejected when their ideas fail to progress by making them aware of just how rare a ready-to-launch idea really is. As they develop they will become naturally thick-skinned and better contributors, eventually idea rejection will have no effect at all on their energy and enthusiasm for the challenge. When you nurture innovation like this you are removing one reason for disengagement in your innovation program and perhaps ensuring that at least a few are pulling as hard as they can on the corporate oar.