Sunday, January 23, 2005

Systematizing Innovation

BusinessWeek How do you systematize innovation?
Steve Jobs (Apple, Pixar)
You don't. You hire good people who will challenge each other every day to make the best products possible.
Michael Helfrich (exGroove)
Jobs echoes a core value of mine that there is no real way to systematize innovation. ... We must embrace creative friction as a corporate value. Management then needs to demonstrate an appreciation of new, radical ideas and act on the ones that make sense.

This amounts to an ethic of innovation: ... good people ... best products ... creative friction ... new, radical ideas ... making sense. But how do you know who the best people are, which the best products are, which ideas make sense?

In a closed system, these would all be foreclosed. In a closed system, management operates against fixed notions (making sense) of the qualities of peoples, the qualities of products, and the qualities of ideas. In this context, systematization reduces innovation to a bureaucratic game.

In an open system, these notions are all open for revision and reframing. Systematization means systematically paying attention to certain qualities, systematically learning (both single-loop and double-loop). How can we understand and manage innovation, how can we best deploy the innovative capacity of the organization, without some degree of systematization?

Of course, I appreciate that this is not quite what Jobs and Helfrich mean by systematization. But I find their espoused account of innovation glib and unsatisfying: rather like attributing the success of America to motherhood and applepie. We can - indeed must - think systematically about innovation.

Jobs and Rodriguez both believe that there are two types of people: creative and routine. I don't agree. Of course there are two contrasting behaviour patterns and there are people who naturally fall into one or other pattern. Not only are both patterns needed in a successful organization, they are both needed for the successful implementation of a successful innovation. And people can (should, must) be encouraged, enabled and empowered to move beyond their initial behaviour patterns. Thus everyone is capable of being creative in his/her own way; everyone is capable of contributing to innovation: a truly innovative organization provides maximum opportunities for this for everyone.

So my ethic of innovation is slightly different: get the best out of everyone, take power to the edge, innovate at several levels. Not just new, radical ideas from the most highly paid product engineers, but also old radical ideas and a passion to innovate from anyone who genuinely wants to contribute.

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