This blog is about technology, design, and creativity…three big concepts which, if Webster’s provided Venn diagrams, would cover a lot of territory. My focus, in research, teaching, and this blog, is on exploring the intersection between the three. In particular,what is the creative process that leads to new technologies (and can that process be designed)? What is the role of design in gaining acceptance for new ideas and ventures? It’s enough territory to have occupied me for the last decade or so, and the more I learn, the curioser I get.
My approach to the subject exhibits all the classic symptoms of path dependence. It began with a 1994 ethnographic study of the product development firm IDEO. I had just begun my doctoral studies in Organizational Studies when my advisor, Bob Sutton, suggested we look at one of my old haunts, IDEO, where I had worked while getting my Master’s degree in Product Design. We spent 18 months hanging around the Palo Alto offices,watching the engineers and designers at work and engaging in longer interviews whenever something interesting was happening or big questions came up. The partnership and process worked well. In Bob’s words, we acted as each others’ seeing-eye dog–he knew the theories of organizational behaviors (why people do what they do in organizations) and I knew the engineering process (why the technology and design process were the way they were). Over countless conversations, we managed to make sense of why people were doing what they were doing–in this case, creating some incredibly innovative products in an atmosphere that seemed like a disneyland for engineers.
Long story short, we developed some interesting insights that became academic papers. For example, into the role of brainstorming: despite the widespread belief that brainstorming is an effective creativity tool, laboratory studies have consistently failed to find support for such beliefs. by measures of quantity and quality, in fact, there has been a consistent finding that brainstorming (as the purposeful generation of new ideas) comes better through “nominal” rather than “face-to-face” groups. This distinction is mostly methodological, and means you compare the output of 3 or 4 randomly selected people working alone (but called a group for the purposes of comparison) witih the output of 3 or 4 randomly selected people working together around the same table. Consistently, those working together come up with fewer ideas, and fewer good ideas, than if you gave everyone a pencil and paper and sent them back to their desks to think on their own. Obviously, there are countless quibbles you could have with the comparison, but the findings did hold over a range of studies. We took a different approach, arguing that brainstorming played a much more complex role in organizations than simply the generation of new ideas–including sharing a culture of creativity, fostering the transfer of knowledge across the organization, impressing clients, and providing an arena for status competitions around creativity (rather than big offices or backroom politics). And that research ended up as another academic article on IDEO which you can find (you can find it here.
But the paper that set me on my path was the one that explored how IDEO engineers were able to so routinely generate innovative new products and features for their clients. Most studies of the process of creativity and innovation begin with the recognition that something is new–and look to see how people came up with something so new. But in watching and talking with the designers at IDEO, it became apparent that novelty–in the true sense of the word–played the bit part. The lead role in their creative process was their ability to take existing ideas they had seen in other uses and other places and put them together in ways that generated very innovation solutions.
In other words, if you studied the creative process as if it were about coming up with new ideas–you find one set of interesting things going on (like what makes people break the rules, think out of the box, try new things), But if you study the creative process as if it were about moving ideas from where they’re known to where they’re not–you find a whole other set of interesting things. To begin with, you see that creativity is not really an individual and internal process of thinking new thoughts. People, in fact, become the nexus–the link–between old ideas and the thought processes that put those old ideas into new combinations for use somewhere else.
If you study IDEO from this perspective, you can easily see how the creativity of their engineers and designers comes from their exposure to 100s of clients in dozens of different industries. When a project team there is faced with a challenging problem, the chances are quite good that someone else in the organization has seen how that problem was solved in another industry or market. Trouble designing a new hinge to attach the display on a portable computer? Find 4 or 5 designers who have worked in the toy industry, in robotics, in medical devices, and in sporting goods and bring them together for a brainstorm. You can pretty easily come up with a lot of good ideas for hinges that have been developed elsewhere (and the process does looks nothing like the laboratory study). So the critical elements of creativity become what Herb Simon once callled “your network of possible wanderings” and the internal organizational processes (and culture) that enables you to quickly and easily tap into the ideas and experiences of 300+ people working around the globe. Creativity becomes a networking exercise–both outside and inside the firm.
We called this process technology brokering, and IDEO a technology broker, because IDEO and its designers were brokering between the many different worlds in which they worked. Like real estate, stock, or mortgage brokers who connect buyers and sellers, IDEO was able to move ideas across otherwise disconnected networks. We published this finding here here. And at this point, I chose to continue exploring this perspective on the innovation process as my doctoral dissertation. Rather than look at companies that managed to come up with a single big idea, I looked at companies that were routinely creative. The results produced yet more academic articles, many posted on my research page.
Since then, as I mentioned, path dependence has led me to view the world of creativity and innovation, of technology and design, through a lens that is perpetually looking for the networks that either bring new people, idea, and objects together in new ways–or prevent the same from happening. Networks have gotten a lot of attention lately–thanks to the internet, which has provided our culture with a handy schematic, a convenient handle, for seeing the world (myself included). In my case, the networks are less physical than cognitive. Not just the networks that physically connect people (or things), but also the networks that people carry around in their heads. Like maps, these cognitive networks do a better or worse job guiding people as they navigate the external networks. For example, when Stanley Milgram made his famous claim that we are all only 6 degrees away from everyone else (and hence it really is a small world), he based it on how people sent a letter to someone they didn’t know by way of people they thought would. Turns out he was quite a ways off. By studies of databases of large networks, we are apparently more like 3-4 degrees away–we just don’t have the kind of perfect, unbiased network maps that lets us see the more direct routes.
Returning to the networks that lie behind the creative process, I’ve spent the last decade now studying those networks (real and imagined), how they make some people more creative–and firms more innovative–than others. A few years ago, I wrote up this research as a book, How Breakthroughs Happen (2003, HBS Press) that highlighted three major findings:
1. Recombinant Innovation… Most innovations, and especially the ones that spark revolutions, are new combinations of old ideas. From Edison’s light bulb to Apple’s iPod, and from Ford’s Mass Production to Cary Mullis’ genetic equivalent, PCR, the innovations that change the world overnight do so because they combine technologies and ideas that already exist and are well-developed elsewhere. If Edison needed to invent the light bulb (he didn’t) at the same time as he wass perfecting the filament, the network, and the business model, he would have faced insurmountable challenges.
2. Technology Brokering… Creativity and innovation are the result of two focused activities that exploit the networks that surround us: bridging different and otherwise disconnected worlds (in order to see how ideas in one can be used somewhere else) and building new worlds around the creative opportunities (in order to ensure their adoption and success). The more worlds we have experienced, the broader the diversity of people, ideas, and things that serve as raw materials to use when we face new problems. The better we are at building new networks around a new idea, the more likely it will flourish. Edison did not invent the light bulb, but he brought together ideas from the emerging electric lighting industry (arc lamps were already in common use in public streets and parks), the telegraph industry (where he found his wiring and network ideas, and his technicians), and the gas industry (where he found his successful business model: the utility). And he was a master at building these pieces into thriving technical and business networks that would grow on their own.
3, Creativity Networks… The people responsible for these innovations were no more creative (no smarter, no whackier, no more inherently predestined) than the rest of us–they were better connected and better at connecting. If we want to be more creative, we need to stop worrying about thinking out of the box, and start managing our networks to their best effect. Locking yourself in your garage, starting with a blank sheet of paper, or whacking yourself on the head won’t provide you with the raw materials you need to have a good ideas. And waiting to present a beautiful finished product will not bring the world to your door. Further, if we want our organizations to be more effective at innovating, we need to make them better connected to the outside world, and better at connecting internally.
So these are the starting points from which this blog departs. The book dramatically changed my own social network, connecting me to a wide range of like-minded others in academia and in industry. This blog is my way of continuing the conversation with that network as I try to make new sense of everything I’m learning. A real-time reality check, as it were.