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The AIG spent it’s first Diwali on the rooftop oohing and aahing at the incredible fireworks display put on by what seemed to be every person in Delhi. Felt a bit like a surreal tennis match as we looked left, then right, then back again enjoying our panoramic view from atop our home. Reports said that fireworks sales were down this Diwali, the AIG would beg to differ.
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.
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
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With the Olympics upon us and all the worlds eyes on London the AIG have, like most sports fans, settled in when they can to get their dose of the four-yearly event. The first thing you notice about the Olympic coverage in India is how broad and diverse it is. If you thought that week one of the Olympics was “the swimming week” I can share with you the truth that it doesn’t have to be.
In India the big name Olympic hopefuls are in shooting, boxing, wrestling and badminton. Watch out for Abinhav Bindra and Gagan Narang in the 10m air rifle and the indomitable Rondan Singh Sodhi in the double trap. In boxing the story of Mary Kom is intriguing, a five-time world champion Mary would have surely been an Olympic medalist in the past if only her sport were included in the games. Now finally with the chance, will age deny her? Keep an eye on the Women’s flyweight on August 5th to find out.
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The AIG was treated to a wonderful afternoon at the Sivananda Yoga Centre located in Gurgaon, one of Delhi’s four major satellite cities. Led by Yogacharya Arun Pandala, who instructs over 1000 classes a year, the team learned basic positions, breathing techniques, and participated in Shavasana, a form of concentrated meditation where one is conscious yet not awake. Our only regret was we had not done this sooner, as each team member relished the opportunity for peaceful inner reflection.
Much thanks to Arun of the Sivananda Yoga Centre and to our wonderful hosts (and friends!) for organizing the entire event, supporting us with our home visits, and putting up with all of our last minute requests and changes to the agenda. Your hospitality was truly appreciated. Looking forward to next time!
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India Gate, in the heart of New Delhi is the national monument of India and by the observations of the AIG one of the most popular public spaces in the city. Wherever you look there were people, people, people. Families enjoying the outdoors and paddling boats in the canals. Children swimming in the pools and eating ice cream, all of India seemed to have sent a representative.
As is normal for India, along with the crowds came the hawkers selling everything from whistles to corn, water to sunglasses. The AIG got its first “up close” with a snake charmer who obviously saw us as a group who would appreciate a show and quickly threw a couple of sacks onto the ground in front of him. The rapid emergence of two rather large and possibly(probably?) grumpy cobras surprised and enthralled the team and reminded us, if we really needed it, that we weren’t in New Jersey this weekend.
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While hoofing it to bustling Khan Market, the AIG stumbled upon lovely Lodhi Gardens. The meticulously maintained park is the perfect place to get away from the dusty traffic. You can climb through tombs dating back to the 15th century or relax by the pond with the green parakeets under massive palm trees.
While deciphering ancient wall carvings, the AIG befriended a New York Times foreign correspondent stationed in Delhi who was as impressed with our job as we were with his. Business cards were exchanged and plans for a full page write up were discussed (mostly after he left).
Whether you recognize it or not, you have heard it before. The six-second long break beat, known as the “Amen Break,” is claimed to be one of the most sampled loops in music history. It has appeared in such diverse settings as Oasis’ D’You Know What I Mean, car commercials, and the NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. Some claim its inherent popularity is due to the loop’s waveform aligning with the mathematical Golden Ratio. Regardless of why it is so ubiquitous, the history behind it is a valuable lesson for the innovator.
The Amen Break originally appeared in the song Amen Brother by the Winstons in 1969. The track itself was the B-side to their single Color Me Father, recorded more out of necessity than anything else. Though the Winstons won a Grammy for Color Me Father, the band had already split up and the record faded from the public eye. It wasn’t until almost twenty years later, with the advent of the sampler and hip-hop, that the Amen Break rose to prominence. The sampler allowed producers to record and loop music to provide backing for a rapper’s performance. Amen Brother appeared on a compilation album of break beats for easy sampling, and took off from there.
However, while the Amen Break was used considerably in early hip-hop, its influence was even larger in the UK. Producers began to experiment with the break sample; rather than simply looping it, they chopped and layered it to create an entirely new sound. The genres of jungle and drum-and-bass were essentially born of this manipulation, with producers participating in an “arms race”  of sorts to see who could do the most with the sample. Sometimes they pushed the envelope too far and made tracks that were impossible to dance to. Though the popularity of these genres waned, the Amen Break continued to live on in countless productions, and has become such an integral part of the modern audio landscape that it’s often taken for granted.
So what can we learn from the Amen Break? I’d say the first thing is never to throw out something just because it isn’t immediately useful. Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective, or new technology, to truly make the most of an idea. Hip-hop artists looking through old funk tracks rediscovered it, and along with the sampler, utilized it to meet their needs. Furthermore, innovation isn’t necessarily coming up with new ideas, but adapting existing ones. Using the same building blocks, producers were able to create completely different tracks. Though there is an entire debate over copyright law pertaining to this sample (that I won’t get into here), the fact is that sampling created entire genres of music through a mere six second loop. And if that’s possible, think of what you can do with even more time and resources.
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.