Neal Stephenson: Innovation Starvation

In his piece in World Policy Journal… (Source)

Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. In this environment, the best an audacious manager can do is to develop small improvements to existing systems—climbing the hill, as it were, toward a local maximum, trimming fat, eking out the occasional tiny innovation—like city planners painting bicycle lanes on the streets as a gesture toward solving our energy problems. Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance—will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.

Business Week: The Most Important People in Your Network

From this Business Week article… (Source)

Employees that were rated as more innovative didn’t have bigger networks; rather, they had more bridging ties—ties that connected them to other employees who were themselves not connected.

If we are circulating too much with people we have known forever or people who themselves are all spending time in the same meetings and interactions, then we are not getting the performance impact we can from social-media tools. Bigger is not better. The magic lies in the new ideas and perspectives that can come from connections into different networks.

WSJ: The Genius of the Tinkerer

I remember reading once that an entrepreneur is simply someone that takes existing assets (or perhaps ideas) and reconfigures them into an arrangement that produces more value than in their present setup. It seemed such a dry description and lacked the sexy and exciting “invention out of thin air” that we have been trained to think is what happens in business.

As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve come to realize this definition is pretty accurate—“bricolage” as Steven Johnson points out this fantastic WSJ piece:

But ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.

He then goes on to discuss Stuart Kauffman’s concept of “the adjacent possible” to describe those first order combinations that appear in nature.

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

Finally, Johnson ties things back to modern “closed-door” corporate R&D:

The premise that innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas may seem logical enough, but the strange fact is that a great deal of the past two centuries of legal and folk wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument, building walls between ideas. Ironically, those walls have been erected with the explicit aim of encouraging innovation. They go by many names: intellectual property, trade secrets, proprietary technology, top-secret R&D labs. But they share a founding assumption: that in the long run, innovation will increase if you put restrictions on the spread of new ideas, because those restrictions will allow the creators to collect large financial rewards from their inventions. And those rewards will then attract other innovators to follow in their path.

He ends with one of my favorite scenes from Apollo 13 where the engineers have to design a carbon dioxide filter from miscellaneous items aboard the damaged spacecraft dumped on to the table (“We gotta find a way to make this fit into a hole for this,” he says, and then points to the spare parts on the table, “using nothing but that”). (Source)

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.

Business is Both-Brained. What About Your Career?

The discussion of right-brain and left-brain thinking in business is a hot topic, thanks in particular to Daniel Pink’s wonderful book, A Whole New Mind. In the June 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review, the article Innovation in Turbulent Times covers famous left/right, business/creative partnerships such as David Packard/Bill Hewlett, Pierre Wertheimer/Coco Chanel among others.

The need and effective paring of rational, linear and logical thinking with imaginative, creative, and holistic thinking is as obviously important as it is difficult to do well. I see this all the time working in the web domain of information technology, were engineering, design and project delivery frequently intersect.

While its fun to debate what left or right-brained skills are more important these days, one thing is certain: business is “both-brained”. Consider this poignant excerpt from the HBR article:

Management might need better visioning skills to foster a culture of curiosity and greater risk taking—primarily right-brain activities. Left-brain analytic tools might be needed to steer innovation investments toward the most promising areas. The business might need more creativity to generate ideas, but also analytics to constrain unprofitable projects. The right-brain design process might not be strong enough to transform intriguing ideas into practical products. Or the analytic left brains might need to fund the product pipeline to favor a different mix of large and small bets. Sometimes the products are fine but marketing needs to create stronger, more emotional bonds with customers, or engineers need to boost efficiency and profitability through improvements in cost or quality.

It’s as relevant in the context of a business as it is in a career. In the latter, the challenge is to manage the “partnership” of your two brain hemispheres as well as some of the successful business examples we all admire. As any brief study of neuroscience will yield, nearly everything we do uses both sides of brain. The art is in realizing your strengths or natural “handedness”, and learning to cultivate practices that encourage thinking in new ways.

Perhaps all this makes the most famous both-brainer of them all, Leonardo da Vinci, even more relevant to our demanding modern careers. (Source)

Embracing the Chaos Between Stable State Organizaitons

Visualization about leveraging chaos for innovation in stable organizations, using General David Petraeus and the Iraq counterinsurgency “surge” as a case study. Content based on the book The Gamble by Thomas Ricks (which I have not read).

You can find the original at mondaydots, or Garr’s article on Presentation Zen, along with the author’s how to for building similar presentations using Apple’s Keynote and iMovie. I’m inspired. (Source)

Tom Kelley: How to Be an Innovator for Life

Excellent Stanford podcast by Tom Kelly of IDEO about five practices to develop creativity and innovative thinking: Think like a traveller, treat life like an experiment, nurture an attitude of wisdom, use your whole brian and tortoise mind, and follow your passion. Great advice for work and life. (Source)