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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Innovation Perspectives - Designing Your Organization and Culture

To Encourage and Facilitate Interdisciplinary Conflict, Collaboration and Experimentation


This is the third of several 'Innovation Perspectives' articles we will publish this week from multiple authors to get different perspectives on 'How should firms develop the organizational structure, culture, and incentives (e.g., for teams) to encourage successful innovation?'. Here is the next perspective in the series:

by Cynthia DuVal

Innovation Perspectives - Designing Your Organization and CultureIf you want to encourage successful innovation take a lesson from Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Of all of the companies I've worked for or with, PARC, under the direction of John Seely Brown, was the best at inventing answers to this question. And maybe that is the answer: If you aren't successfully innovating now, change your current structures, cultures and incentives to encourage interdisciplinary conflict and collaboration and I might add, get out of the way of self-motivated creativity.

Successful innovations sometime flow from the historical trajectory of technical and academic knowledge. Lots of great innovations have evolved along this path. At other times successful innovations emerge out of interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations that result in leap thinking. By leap thinking I mean thinking that starts a new line of innovative thought and action. Leap thinking isn't something that can be predicted before it happens, it emerges out of artistic ways of knowing more so than scientific and so, can lead to something altogether new and to market advantages. (I know this is an over simplification.)

I've sought out the opportunity to observe and experience leap thinking and innovation in my career so I can tell you a little bit about what I've learned through two stories about how I see it related to organizational structure and culture.

First is a story of how leap thinking can be fostered by organizational structures. In 1994 John Seely Brown, Rich Gold and Mark Weiser designed an organizational structure experiment with hopes of achieving leap thinking across disciplines at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. The experiment was called Xerox PARC Artist in Residence Program or PAIR. I was a graduate intern on this project. We brought a group of inventive Bay Area electronic artists into the PARC facility to work in collaboration with PARC scientists. The scientists were working in computer software, artificial intelligence, physics, mathematics, interface design, hardware and social science disciplines.

John Seely Brown: http://www.johnseelybrown.com/
Rich Gold: http://richgoldmemorial.onomy.com/
Mark Weiser: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Weiser

Just one of the outcomes of this experiment was the 1997 Future of Reading Show at the San Jose Museum of Technology that PAIR artists and scientists designed. An innovative endeavor in itself the exhibit featured several inventive exhibits. One such exhibit was a metal dog sculpture that could and still can read a book. The dog is a fabulous and pioneering piece of techno-art. PARC artist/scientist/technologists Dale MacDonald and Scott Minneman subsequently started Onomy Labs and continue to create inventive and aesthetically clever techno-art exhibits for corporate customers today. So, this one organizational change program did indeed lead innovations in professional work trajectories, in the role that PARC played in the regional culture and in the creation of exhibits that captured in highly creative ways, the potential of technology to create the future of reading.

Now I'll tell you a story of how organizational culture facilitates leap thinking. This example also comes from Xerox PARC. PARC culture made it easy for people to learn about each others' work. This was manifested in several ways. One way was to have an open cafeteria with good food that encouraged people to stay in the building and eat together in cross-functional groups. Another was to hold company-wide symposiums with special guest speakers who would talk about topics of interest to he multidisciplinary audience. Another was that people were free to seek each other out for consultations, conversations and collaborations. I can't tell you how many organizations I've worked at since that failed to capture intellectual capital because they didn't facilitate freedom of communication between groups and levels. (I almost got fired more than once for trying to take advantage of open door policies that were nothing of the kind.)

Another was the excellent library where reports were posted and people could bump into each other and browse books and periodicals outside their own professions. It was in this corporate culture that Mark Weiser invented the concept of ubiquitous computing.

Here is the story. Mark was having conversations with Lucy Suchman, Gitti Jordan, and other anthropologists who were pioneering observational work practice research at Xerox at the time he was Director of the Computer Science Lab. These brilliant social scientists had achieved compelling research results by observing how people actually used Xerox machines in the flow of their on-going work. This was revolutionary at the time. They also observed in minute detail how people thought as they interacted with Xerox machines and and interfaces. Using this unconventional method for understanding machine design they began to see how people fit into the design process and in essence launched the user-centered design profession. In conversations with Mark they argued that the old paradigm of building on the shoulders of giants was not the right approach to invention, that computer science was stagnating and they wanted to know, "What are you going to do about it?"

Lucy Suchman: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/sociology/profiles/31/
Gitti Jordan: http://www.lifescapes.org/

Mark was deeply troubled by their opinion and challenge and struggled to make sense of their perspective and his own sense of discomfort over their criticism. The challenge caused Mark to question his own perspective. He used a creative thinking process and applied the "situated learning" concept to computer science. He got the idea that computers were forcing people to work at a desk and were not supporting people in the environments in which they naturally worked. Voila! He got the idea for ubiquitous computing; computers could be situated in environments in different configurations and embedded in objects to facilitate work. This was a leap in thinking that has revolutionized life as we know it. A supportive organizational structure influenced by a permissive organizational culture combined with interdisciplinary conflict and individual creative effort and thinking, was the primordial stew out of which Mark invented an entirely new industry. And we all know how many subsequent innovations have come from that!

Ubiquitous computing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubiquitous_computing


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You can check out all of the 'Innovation Perspectives' articles from the different contributing authors on 'How should firms develop the organizational structure, culture, and incentives (e.g., for teams) to encourage successful innovation?' by clicking the link in this sentence.
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Cynthia DuValCynthia DuVal is an experienced ethnographer and the Founding Director of the DuVal Ethnographic Research Center & Change Agency.

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