The Driver Of Innovation: Environment Or People?

where-good-ideas-come-fromSociety loves to typecast people. It wants to stick you in a box and keep you there, especially true when it comes to careers. For most of my career, I’ve worked in business and worked as a writer simultaneously. Somedays, I feel more like a writer, other days I’m a business nut. But every day both are an inextricable part of my personality. I am not one or the other; I am both. Few people accept this reality; it’s like the mind can’t compute you could feasibly be both. My de facto introduction is either as a consultant or a writer, but never both.

Atul Gawande is a better example. He is both a writer and a medical practitioner. He’s achieved more in writing than many full-time writers do in a lifetime. And yet, when he’s introduced, he’s more often introduced as a doctor who also happens to have this cute little side hobby as a writer. But that isn’t accurate either. He is a practicing surgeon, has written three books (nominated as a National Book Award finalist), and publishes regularly in The New Yorker. He has advised on health care policy, has served the World Health Organization, and has received multiple awards for his ongoing civic contributions to the state of Massachusetts, where he lives. And – because he apparently has more time – he also likes to read.

Gawande’s accomplishments are intimidating. How could one person conceivable contribute so prolifically to such a broad range of areas?

Where Do Good Ideas Comes From?

I recently read Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Penguin Group, 2010). “Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.” Ideas, Johnson argues, depend on the right environment.

Johnson offers seven environmental components that generate innovative ideas:

  1. The Adjacent Possible: “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”
  2. Liquid Networks: “To make your mind more innovative, you have to play it inside environments that share the same network signature: networks of ideas or people that mimic the neural networks of a mind exploring boundaries of the adjacent possible….Certain environments enhance the brain’s natural capacity to make new links to association.”
  3. The Slow Hunch: “Most hunches that turn into important innovations unfold over much longer time frames. They start with a vague, hard-to-describe sense that there’s an interesting solution to a problem that hasn’t yet been proposed, and they linger in the shadows of the mind, sometimes for decades, assembling new connections and gaining strength. And then one day they are transformed into something more substantial.”
  4. Serendipity: “Like any other thought, a hunch is simply a network of cells firing inside your brain in an organized pattern. But for that hunch to blossom into something more substantial, it has to connect with other ideas. The hunch requires an environment where surprising new connections can be forged…”
  5. Errors: “The history of being spectacularly wrong, again and again. And not just wrong, but messy. A shockingly large number of transformative ideas in the annals of science can be attributed to contaminated laboratory experiments.”
  6. “Exaptation”: Exaptation is a term borrowed from evolutionary biologists: “An organism develops a trait optimized for a specific use, but then the trait gets hijacked for a completely different function.”
  7. Platforms: “Part of the magic is economic: emergent platforms can dramatically reduce the costs of creation.”

The best environment for these principles to go into effect, according to Johnson, is in a non-market / networked environment. In other words, an environment in which there are no immediate economic incentives and where ideas can easily collide. That though is only half of the equation. The other half, in my opinion, depends on people.

The “T-Shaped” Man

In business literature, there have been a number of theories on the characteristics of the ideal employee. A prevailing idea, estimated to have been developed by McKinsey in the 1980s, and then popularized by IDEO’s Tim Brown, is the notion of the “T-Shaped Man.” The T-Shaped Man is an employee who has a skill-set comprised of one area of expertise (represented by the tail of the ‘T’) coupled with a shallower knowledge of a great many other subjects areas (represented by the hat of the ‘T’) Such a schematic allow for optimal collaboration and innovation.

The T-Shaped Man had evolved from an “I.” An “I” represented workers who offered specialization in only one silo-ed subject area. The T-Shaped Man moved away from hyper-specialized models of times past. As the economy evolved and technology accelerated change, the T-Shaped Man could pivot more easily from topic to topic. They would cross-pollinate ideas. The T-Shaped Man was the future.

We are now in that future. And from what I’ve witnessed the T-Shaped Man has taken on an evolution of its own: today the T-Shaped Man has developed offspring in multiple different shapes and sizes. Most workers today fit into the mold of the T-Shaped Man, but their ‘Ts’ look very different. Some are tall and thin with very long stems and tiny hats; while others are mushroom-like, with short stems and heavy hats.

I am a short and fat ‘T’. I have both knowledge and interest in a very broad range of topics. I also have depth in two topics, writing and business, which makes my stem a little fatter, but I’ve also only been in the game for about ten years, so it’s a little shorter. I am a top-heavy, mushroom. I naturally gravitate to wanting to know a little about a lot of things rather than knowing a lot about a few things.

For the first half of my working life, I tried to retrofit myself into the model of a skinny ‘T’. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t interested in developing a specific niche or expertise. My interest in a broad range of topics felt like a burden, or a nuisance rather, that distracted me from deepening my core knowledge. I had friends who loved to mine the depths of a particular topic, while I seemed plagued by an interest to accumulate a broader and seemingly disparate knowledge base. I deeply wanted to be a tall and thin ‘T’, but my fate seemed sealed as a stout one instead.

For a long time I felt this was a shortcoming. Until I came across Atul Gawande. I finally felt I found someone who seemed to be of the same species. Nevermind that Gawande seems to be a specimen of inordinate achievement, he still provided a model I could recognize. For the first time I felt like I could relate to someone’s seemingly disparate set of interests and accomplishments. Maybe there was a use-case for my skill-set after all.

Different industries require different types of ‘Ts’. Consulting, venture capital, and writing are all examples of industries that favor one area of expertise applied to a very broad range of subjects. Industry, on the other hand, tends to over-index on deep experience and expertise. But to function optimally, all industries need both types of ‘Ts’.

Corporations have a tendency to want to mold all their employees into the same shape and size, like a “Stepford Wives” factory. In my experience though, the most fruitful collisions are usually the ones that occur between opposites types of ‘Ts’. Innovation happens when a very wide ‘T’ bumps into a tall ‘T’. Wide ‘Ts’ are prone to collision, and left to their own devices will create organic collision with whoever is nearby. This can only occur if corporations keep a healthy roster of all types of ‘Ts’. Corporations that don’t risk suffocating innovation.

The ongoing tug-of-war between specialization and breadth extends beyond business. You see it in education, healthcare, and in media to name a few. How, as a society, do we value one over the other? The applications for specialization are usually more evident. Breadth is rewarded only when we can attribute it with results; Steve Jobs’s interest in computers and calligraphy is the oft-cited example. To operate optimally, and more importantly to innovate, an organization needs the right people over the right environment. People can overcome a bad environment, but this isn’t true of the inverse. Corporations that function most effectively are ones that harbor people with both breadth and depth. Breadth and depth, though, are relative. The value of one is worthless without the other.

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