Obvious innovation and the Jackson Pollack example

My recent entry on innovation attracted a few comments, some verbally to my face, and some online, were we can all see them. One online poster, ended his comment by saying “innovation is obvious, isn’t it?” – I find very interesting idea itself. Certainly there is a tendency to regard a lot of innovation as non-obvious. If for a moment we flip the default and assume innovation is obvious then there is a lot we can learn about innovation.

I would like to introduce something what I call the Jackson Pollack example. We will use Jackson Pollack is an example, although Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly or a number of other modern art artists could fill the bill equally. It goes like this

Have you ever been to a modern Art exhibition, and as you view a piece by Jackson Pollack, a visitor close by, says “that’s not art, I could’ve done that” or perhaps they say: “Looks like something my child date.”

They might be right. In these observations there is an important point is: they didn’t do it, Jackson Pollack did, it was he who had the idea, it was he who implemented, it was he who showed the idea, it was not the person standing next to you at the exhibition. Sure, the idea may appear obvious in retrospect, but did it appear obvious when Pollack did it?

At the time the Pollack worked art was changing. Still, he went against a lot of conventions produce his drip paintings. Other people may have had the same idea as Pollack, but they didn’t implement it, why they didn’t implement it we don’t know, we can only speculate, but I’m sure that some of them would have been bound by convention, the convention and that says the painting must be easily recognisable, the convention that says it should be a landscape or a portrait or a still life.

We are surrounded by conventions, and sometimes an innovation needs to break the convention. In retrospect, it may be a convention that needed to be broken but that might not be obvious the time. To break convention risks upsetting people, it may even be career limiting, and so there are good reasons why we don’t break conventions – reluctance to break convention is itself a restriction on innovation.

Of course, one reason why Pollack was able to do what he did was because he was an artist. He had an artist’s training, and he had a track record of producing pictures. Therefore, he was taken seriously by the artistic community and the art dealers. The same might not be true of your neighbour in the Art Gallery, who has no training or background in art.

This scenario plays itself out in business as well, firms may expect to see innovation from the Research and Development Department, but may not be expecting it from other places in the company. When innovation is posed by, say, the checkout operator iIt may not be taken seriously.

The question for business is: can it afford to only take innovation is from where they are expected? By ignoring the proposal from the checkout operator the company may be closing its eyes to proposals worth thousands or millions of Euros.

So, to sum up then: innovation may be obvious, but there are plenty of reasons why we might lose it.

The Jackson Pollack example shows us:

  • Having the idea is important, but so is having the idea first. And so is following through on the idea.
  • What is obvious in retrospect may not have been obvious at the time.
  • We sometimes need to break conventions and this might make us unpopular.
  • Sometimes, we only take innovation seriously, when it comes in, the people we expect to be innovative.

So challenge for the company wishing to be innovative are:

  • How do we help people follow through on their ideas?
  • How do we allow people to break conventions?
  • How do we harness ideas when they come from unexpected sources?

Skunkworks teams for innovation

Continuing on the theme of innovation, there is another common technique used by companies to produce innovation. Often it used to develop somebody’s innovative idea and is sometimes used to generate innovative ideas as well. This is the skunkworks model – or to give it a less jazzy title: separate your imaginative team.

In this model, the team that is to produce the innovative product is separated from the main organisation. The people involved a ring fenced, they may work at a separate location, they are removed from the day-to-day life of the company, and in particular, the politics and blocks on innovation that exist normally. Sometimes these teams are kept secret.

This technique has been documented in countless stories, indeed, Lockheed Martin have trademarked the term skunkworks. If you want to know more about this method you could read Coplien and Harrison’s Skunkworks pattern and in their book, Organizational Patterns of Agile Software Development, 2005.

(I have also discussed the technique in pattern form, Separate Imaginative Teams.)

Hamel and Prahalad also noticed this technique in their Harvard Business Review article, Corporate Imagination and Expeditionary Marketing – May-June 1991.

There is something macho about this technique: the image of a bunch of brave souls going off to design and create a new product, cut off from the Corporation, free from the politics and infighting. And sure it does work, companies do create new products this way, however, this technique also has a downside.

This technique may create a new product, it may bring about an innovation, it may get you out of a hole right now, but it does little to make the overall organisation more innovative. In fact, it may detract from the overall company’s innovative ability.

To start with the innovative people are separated from the rest of company so none of their expertise or experience is directly accessible by the rest of the company. Neither do they form role-models for other people in the company. Many times, the new product development is invisible to rest of the company – they just get on with their regular work.

And when the product is produced in must somehow be folded back into the company. The rest of the company may not understand the new product. Indeed it might be quite different from the company’s main products. Therefore there is a learning curve, while the new product becomes part of the stable.

The people who have created the new product also need to be folded back into the company. But while they have been outside the mainstream, they may have got used to a different way of working, a freer environment, a lack of politics or structure. To these people re-entering the corporate fall might be difficult. Indeed it might be easier to leave the company altogether.

Meanwhile, the people who remained with the company working on the old products are not working on the shiny new thing, they may become resentful of those working on the new product – especially if the skunkworks team are seen to be given privileges or better resources.

And there’s not forget one the points made by Arie de Geus which I noted a few days ago: it is not just the taking of decisions that takes time but the acting on them too. The people outside of the company have made all sorts of decisions, and when they returned to the company they expect those others to act on them – there will inevitably be a delay. Indeed, there may be a repeat of the learning curve.

Perhaps, one of the most famous examples of this approach was Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre – or PARC for short. Xerox set up a research centre on the other side of the country, stuffed it brilliant people and gave him plenty of money. The project succeeded, it invented most of the features we find in the modern PC.

But the project also failed, the team was so far removed from the main Xerox Corporation and the company could not usefully exploit their innovations. Still the researchers found a way, and many of them left Xeroxto found successful start-up companies in Silicon Valley, for example Adobe and 3Com.

So, on balance, I am not a fan of the skunkworks approach to innovation. If you want your company to be innovative you have two embed, within the company, and within the values.

How do you do innovation?

There is a lot of hot air spoken about innovation. Indeed, there is probably more talk about innovation than there is actual innovation itself.

I started to get all excited about innovation on Friday, when one of my managers said:

“Allan, do you know anything we can do to improve innovation?”

Of course there is one obvious answer: 20% personal projects, its the 3M example – and now Google. Just about everyone seems to have heard this example so I’ll be brief in my comments: at 3M engineers are encouraged to spend about 20% (figure varies depending on who you read and which company it is) on “personal projects.” Some of these projects eventually make it to full products, like Post-it pads and Google News.

But are there other things you can do?

I was excited so I went home and started looking through some of my textbooks and journal archives, my question: just what do you do to produce innovation?

On the one hand innovation is just an extension of problem-solving, which is itself an example of learning. So doing innovation is firmly within the knowledge and learning agenda I keep banging on about. But on the other hand, innovation is so specific it is a subject in its own right.

Regular readers of this Blog will know I don’t have much time for “big brains”: I don’t believe that the CEO, CTO and a few managers can sit in the boardroom for six hours and come out with a new product. Most innovation is bottom-up.

Nor do I believe you can schedule innovation: Ever seen a project plan with a date pencilled in for innovation? No, you can’t timetable it.

So, how do you do it?

Looking at my books I find advice like: improve you ability to learn, trust your employees, organize your business structures to promote innovation, value innovation, align your HR policies (reward innovation and risk taking), don’t punish failure, and so on. These are all big, macro solutions, they may be necessary but they are not sufficient, you need something else.

You can set your business environment up to encourage innovation with these ideas, you can show people it is valued, but what do you do?

This is where the 20% personal project comes in. It is something you could do today. It is easy to see how you could get a new idea out of it – whether that is a product or process innovation.

A few months ago I was able to speak to someone who works at Google and they described how this works.

Engineers need to spend 20% of their time on a personal project. But many of them don’t know what to do, so most of them are open to suggestions. Meanwhile, the product managers have the opposite problem. They are identifying things the company could do, but without a prototype or proof of concept they can’t get any official resources.

So the product managers look around and find engineers who need projects. They then have to interest the engineers in working on their idea. If the project goes well they can then go official and ask for full project status.

(By the way, read my lips: No project managers!)

The trouble with this example, the 20% example, is the one everybody cites. It seems. When asked: “how do you do innovation?” People reply with a 20% example. What is actually happening is that this example is getting in the way of other ideas and examples of how you do innovation!

So, dear readers, the challenge for you:

what does your company do to encourage innovation?

I need your ideas and experiences.

Why work?

In my last entry I wrote about The Living Company, there’s a lot I could say about this book that you’re better off going to it read yourself. It isn’t my intention to give you a review or abstract in this book buyer would like to share a few thoughts.

While these thoughts concern the role of the individual in the corporation at its most basic level it poses the question: Why do we work?

At one level it is an easy question to answer: we need to pay for our food, clothes, housing, etc. But there is a deeper level to this question and one that concerns the relationship between the individual and the company. We could rephrase this question as, what do I hope to get out of this job? With the emphasis on, I.

For de Geus and his Living Company profits are only a means to an end. Similarly, wages are only a means to an end. In working for a company, and in employing an individual, the two enter into a pact. The corporation promises to give the individual opportunities to further themselves and to grow as a human being, and the individual undertakes to help the company continue in his quest for survival.

De Geus explores this argument in depth. While he accepts that one size does not fit all and that in different firms things need to be done differently he is an advocate of the recruit early, retained the life human resource philosophy. Of course, this has its problems and he does discuss some, but these are discussed from the corporate side

I was left wondering what of the individual who does not get hired by such an enlightened company, is such a person condemned to work for “inferior” companies from the rest of their working life? I suppose I’m thinking of myself when I ask this question, when I graduated from university jobs were thin on the ground and I considered myself lucky to get a job with a 12 month fixed term.

And what of the individual who is unfortunately laid off from the corporation? And particularly when this occurs, halfway through one’s careers, how are they to return to an enlightened employment?

De Geus does consider the need for companies to periodically let people go. For him this occurs, not when a company needs to downsize, but when an individual can no longer grow. Of course, sometimes in a downsizing company there may no longer be the opportunities for individuals to grow. At this point de Geus actually starts to sound like Jack Welch.

Welch (Headline Book Publishing, 2001) also advocates a human resource policy based on individual development, of course, being Welch, he is a lot more hard-nosed about it and relates the policy directly to the bottom line of the company. He also advocates a pro-active policy of dismissing people who are considered to be in the bottom 10%.

This is all tough stuff, and maybe, just maybe, the idea that the company can no longer offer an individual opportunities grow and it is therefore best they leave the company, well maybe, this is just the sugar coating that managers can tell themselves so they can sleep at night, when the newly ex-employee is wondering where his next wage comes from.

Don’t get me wrong. I think these authors are making a good point, and I am very attracted to the idea that it is through work that we grow and improve as individuals, but I also see a potential for self-deception.

Interestingly, these ideas of growth and, shall we say, weeding out, sitting well with my blog entry of 12 October 2005 – Productivity & IT – US trumps Europe. Maybe this is just a simple case of statistics, if the company is to be above average. In needs to remove those below average and encourage those above-average.

And what of me on a personal level? As I’ve written here before, I am now a Product Manager, a recent change, and one that is giving me room for. Looking back on it and not sure many of the companies I have worked for have really offered growth opportunities.

There is a chapter in book one of Douglas Adam’s is Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where he describes the evolution of Vogons. I can’t recall the exact words, but he says something like

“evolution took one look at the Vogons and decided they weren’t worth bothering with, so the Vogon’s decided evolution was worth bothering with just on with it.”

I sometimes feel like that about my career! Some of those large, enlightened companies, took one look at me and decided they didn’t have a career for me, so I just got on with it myself.

Actually, I don’t think I’m alone in this scenario, I think many of those who entered the labour force during the late 1980s and 90s encountered the same situation. I like to think things have changed now but I don’t know.

Still for me, the wage is important, but so is the growth. And as I get older, the relative importance of growth increases.

Another month, another book -The Living Company

Sitting on planes is boring, one of few advantages is that gives you a chance to read, and so it is that idea to read yet another book. This time the book is “The Living Company” by Arie de Geus – 1997, Nicholas Bealey Publishing.

This is a very good book, as one might expect from the title its thesis is that companies resemble living organisms. As a living thing the primary objective of the company is not to make profit but to survive. Profit therefore is not an end in itself but merely a means to an end, for without profit there firm cannot survive.

Arie de Geus is the author of a well-known Harvard business review article entitled “Planning As Learning” – if you have not read this it is well worth the $6.

As one might expect this book expands on this theme, the important point about planning is not produce a schedule that allow individuals to consider possible scenarios so that their thinking goes beyond a mere projection of the past.

Continuing on from this he argues that everyone affected by a decision should be involved in the making of the decision. On the face of this might appear to slow down decision-making process that is not the case. Because making a decision is only half the story, what is the key is made in the acting upon by involving more people in the decision-making process we ensure that action happens sooner.

It was only as I came towards the end of this book of the obvious occur to me. As regular readers of this blog will know I write Patterns, the originator of patterns, Christopher Alexander, calls on us to create patterns that live, in the same way Arie de Geus callers are those to create companies that live. To my mind there are obvious parallels here and further validate the use of patent theory when considering the business domain. Hopefully I’ll explore these parallels further in future patterns that are.

Productivity & IT – US trumps Europe

I’m in the USA this week – part business part pleasure – so its a good time to think about some of the differences between the US and Europe and the UK specifically. On this occasion I’m given food for though by a study from the London School of Economics Centre for Economic performance on growth in the USA and Europe.

The full report is available from the Office of National Statistics for free, and it has been reported in the FT (10 October 2005) – I’m sure it has been reported elsewhere too. I’ve only had time to read the FT story but I’ll try and read the full report in the next few days.

The report is interesting because it looked at the difference in productivity growth between Europe and the USA in the last ten years. It appears that the USA is increasing productivity faster than Europe. But the really interesting thing is: US companies in Europe are increasing productivity inline with the US rather than Europe. This implies it is management practices not local culture that is having an effect.

It goes on to attribute this to two reasons. First US companies make better use of IT. This might come as a shock, after all, US and European companies have access to the same IT resources – we can all buy the same Sun servers and SAP software – so it can’t be the IT itself it must be the way you use it.

(Actually, there is another shock here, there has been some doubt in the past that IT has actually delivered increased productivity at all but we’ll leave that for another day – take a look at material by Erik Brynjolfsson and others if this interests you.)

The second reason is something quite different: HR practises. Seems US companies promote their best workers faster than European companies and get rid of under-performers faster too. In effect they are rewarding the performers and filtering out the also-rans.

I can relate these ideas to what I’ve seen in US and European companies. So, where does this leave us?

Well the good news is there is gold in IT. The bad news is you can’t just “add IT” and make your problems go away, you need active management too.

If this comes as a surprise to you then good. Think about it. If this doesn’t come as a surprise to you then good, you now have the evidence.

Either way we have to ask: what are we going to do about it?

Going to speak

Since I know a thing or two about computers I often get asked by friends and family “what computer should I buy?”

My answer is simple, “how much money have you to spend? Buy a computer that much money and plan to replace it in three years time.”

My logic here is, just about any computer on the market today is good enough for your needs, most people are word processing, spread sheeting, surfing the net, and e-mailing. If you doing anything more complicated, e.g. gaming or software development, you probably know more about what computer you should have than I do.

The second half my advice is based in fact that machines date and explore the best to place on at regular intervals.

So then, if I follow my own advice I should buy a new machine now, my laptop is just over three years old, but when I look at the market things haven’t really moved far forward, my laptop still does what I wanted to do.

One thing might change this though. When I got this laptop I got a free copy of DragonDictate, voice recognition software, I recently playing with this I quite like it. So I have decided to order an updated version in trying using more frequently.

The reason for telling this is simple, DragonDictate makes mistakes, I don’t always spot them, so as I have started dictating my Blog entries you might start to see some mistakes. Now maybe I’ll find the need for a new computer.

On project management

I finished my last entry by taking a swipe at project management and even project managers. That was probably unfair but the fact is I am not a fan of project management

It could be a career limiting move to speak against project management but I feel I should say something to explain my sideswipe, I should explain my thoughts.

Of course I’m not naive enough heretical think projects “just happen” – there needs be some kind of project management but it is the form project management usually takes that I have a problem with. I am not alone in my views, but they are somewhat heretical.

In their book “Lean Software Development” Mary and Tom Poppendieck explain why much project management practice is contrary to the principles of lean. Henry Mintzberg wrote an entire book in criticism of strategic planning – although “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning” (1994, 2000) is largely concerned with the differences between strategy and strategic planning much of what he says can be applied equally to project management.

More specifically the authors Lauri Koskela and Greg Howell have written papers claiming the whole theory of project management is obsolete, e.g. “The theory of project management is obsolete” (2002) and the “Theory of project management explanation of novel methods” (2002). (Actually, one of their criticism is that project management lacks a theory and academic underpinning.)

I’ve even discussed this subject myself before – see “An alternative view of planning”. Of course my view of planning it comes from the software/IT perspective and it may be dangerous to extrapolate to all project management, but this is the feel I know.

So, as I see it, the problems with current project management on multiple:

  • Planners are divorced from those doing the work
  • Planning is not used as a learning tool, it is used as a control tool, this can lead to planning being used to apportion blame
  • Responsibility is removed from those doing work, after all the plan says can be done so is merely an exercise in executing against the plan
  • Accuracy: planning is based on estimates which definition in wrong
  • Extrapolation from the past: planners so often assume that the future will be like the past
  • Planning limits our expectation, because extrapolate from the past, and because the use estimates, and because they ignore the learning we are limited to what we expect to happen
  • Plans become defensive barrier behind which people hide: manages no longer talk to those doing the work they talked of project manager, who in turn talks the people doing the work, nobody has to answer for this, we just compare ourselves to the plan – which of course nobody really believes

Finally planning is demoralising, what we have a plan or users execute. A good project manager execute the plan – the workers are minor fact, and all too often they know this.

So that, in a nutshell is why not fan of project management and planning.

Yes it sounds like I have moved from talking about project management to talking about planning – and I know they are different but is the emphasis put on plans is what I don’t like about project management. (Some of the points made above (e.g. responsibility, learning, accuracy) still hold even if you don’t have a plan, you just have a project manager who create a barrier.) The subsequent “execution against plan” and “exception tracking” are all part of what we define as “project management” today.

So, what I put in its place?

The answer is quite long. I give you some ideas in the last, and earlier, blog entries. In a sense, the “alternative” is what this blog is all about. Or, put it another way: the alternative is a work in progress.

Stay tuned.