Three things came up.
Something 1 (aka innovation and the corporation)
Tom Abate left a comment on this blog that was still ringing in my ears when I met with Tom Guarriello. (I may not always respond to comments but I take them all to heart.) Tom A. suggested that innovation is the buzz term of the moment and that it is now a untrustworthy term, over used and under thought.
Tom G. and I fell to thinking, "What if he’s right?" What if the problem is not innovation? I think Tom and I decided that the real problem is probably dynamism, specifically that the world has got more various, more changeable, more discontinuous, and therefore harder to stay in sync with. (Tom will forgive me, I hope, if I am misrepresenting him.)
In this view, innovation is a symptom of a larger problem. Innovation matters because dynamism is upon us and the corporation is in danger of falling out of sync.
To make "innovation" our key concept is to invite two particular errors.
1. that all the corporation and senior management needs to do is to tap more and better ideas
2. that the managerial problem is therefore innovation management
In point of fact, the challenge to senior management is much more grave. It is not enough to create a skunk works or hire more people who can "think outside the box."
The problem is to make the entire organization more adaptable, and to learn the secrets of dynamism management. (CEO note to self: Buy copies of Virginia Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies for everyone.) A mere skunk works won’t do it, not when every function and hire now needs rethinking and retooling. (I think it’s probably true that this expanded understanding of innovation is entirely clear to A.G. Lafley who has renovated P&G top to bottom.)
Something 2 (aka hiring at Google, or peopling the corporation with difference)
Tom and I also fell to talking about one of the stories in the new bite-size Wall Street Journal. We had both read an article about Google and its search for the perfect hiring algorithm. We agreed that one of the ways to staff the corporation with people who are "future-ready" is to hire people who are both loyal insiders, and devout and devoted outsiders.
What Google wants is someone who is both really good a programming or systems design, say, AND have a deep and abiding interest in, say, the biology of Brazilian rain forest. (Least case, we are talking about people with a diversity of deep interests. More dramatically, we are talking about people with quite different identities.) Why? Because there is no substitute for someone who thinks about things from an entirely different point of view.
This is an advantage that begets an advantage. Once someone has mastered one additional identity (or deep interest) it is easier to master new identities in the same way (and perhaps for the same reason) that knowing one additional language makes it master more languages. The candidate has learned to learn. And this means that the candidate has solve the very pattern recognition that the corporation will need to prosper in a newly dynamic marketplace. (The corporation is now a little like a star ship headed for many galaxies, each of which has new scientific and social puzzles to work out.)
This issue here is not just thinking about outside the box, but actually have a summer home there, long standing acquaintance, perhaps even "landed" status. Why is this useful? It makes certain kind of problem solving vastly more likely. I believe that Jonathan Miller discovered an essential secret about our culture’s idea of authenticity while directing a stage play in London. IDEO learned something essential about the design of the emergency room by understanding the NASCAR pit.
Something 3 (aka the virtue of small groups)
We know that the small is particularly beautiful in the corporation. The team that created the iPod is tiny. The team that created the Motorola Razr was tiny. Small works well because it reduces the number of people who have to be party to (and sign off on) the act of creation. The corporation often has really good ideas but these are murdered in committee, the victims of silos, turf wars and bureaucratic inertia. (I saw this very clearly when I worked in the museum world. When you asked 3 people to create an exhibit they could astound you. If you asked the museum "process" to do it, the results were stupefying.)
Small teams have a peculiar condition. They demand that team members are capable of doubling up, assuming more than one function. Silicon Valley learned an interesting lesson here in the last bubble. The man who was the CEO for one start up returned to the CFO in the next. The CMO would return as head of HR. People were trading hats with each new iteration. It turns out that new companies that had overlapping competencies of this kind worked faster and better. Everyone was better at solving every problem. Small is not just beautiful. It is brainier as well. But only if this "many hats" condition is satisfied.
All the "somethings" together, the case for multiplicity
The upshot of these "reflections" is the new importance that needs to be attached to multiplicity. We need hires who bring multiple identities, in this case, extra-Google identities, with them when they enter the corporation. (This helps supply the creativity on which innovation depends.) Second, we need hires who will be voraciously curious and appropriating once they take up residence in the corporation. We need employees who will master their own positions and begin to "hoover up" the skill sets of the people with whom they work. (This lets them do the double and treble duty on the small teams that innovation demands.)
Oh, the things you can learn in a diner.
Abate, Tom. 2006. Comment to the post "Innovation and the University." This Blog Sits At the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. December 26, 2006. here.
My apologies, but I cannot find the WSJ reference for the Google story. Mysterious.
Thanks to Agility Nut for the image of the Diner. For more, to here.