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Published: November 30, 2004

 
 

Recombinant Innovation

The best new product ideas are hatched by collaboration, not soloists.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru
One of the best new books on innovation, How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate, by Andrew Hargadon (Harvard Business School Press, 2003), contains perhaps the most contrarian concept of how, in fact, breakthroughs do happen. It’s not with out-of-the-box thinking or other facile forms of corporate creativity, but through the effects of community — the milieu, the culture, and the camaraderie in which innovators find themselves.

Counterculture claptrap from an academic wannabe? Not really. While the author of How Breakthroughs Happen (one of strategy+business’s best business books of 2003) does have an academic position (associate professor of technology management at the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis), he also has impressive street credentials. In 1992, as a technical manager at Apple Computer Inc., Professor Hargadon designed and developed a much-admired component of the Apple Macintosh laptop computer: the power transformer “gull wings,” the sleek white retractable tabs that jut out from the power supply so the cord can be elegantly and easily wrapped around them.

Professor Hargadon freely acknowledges that he borrowed (or, as he prefers to call it, “brokered”) the gull-wing idea from the cord tabs on vacuum cleaners. One can trace the concept back from there to the cockpit doors of World War II fighter jets, and perhaps even to actual seagull wings. His own experiences, and the experiences of many others he has studied, have persuaded him that “entrepreneurs and inventors are no smarter, no more courageous, tenacious, or rebellious than the rest of us.

“They are simply better connected,” writes Professor Hargadon.

Context Conversion
Innovators rarely come up with new ideas; instead, they convert old ideas into new ones, adapting them from one context to another. Professor Hargadon calls this “recombinant innovation.” He cites many examples of this process in addition to the gull wings. Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China. Henry Ford adapted his automobile assembly-line technologies from meatpacking plant assembly lines. The Reebok “pump” was an athletic-shoe air bladder borrowed from intravenous bag technology. Pop musicians from Elvis Presley to the Byrds to P. Diddy have “sampled” tunes and themes across genres. Even abstruse and highly specialized technologies like polymerase chain reaction have their roots in the existing practices of other genres.

If you are a corporate leader seeking to foster speedy innovation of new and better products, Professor Hargadon’s communal philosophy of innovation is good news. It means you don’t have to rely on independent geniuses. Just put talented, imaginative people in work environments where there is open-minded give and take and a feeling of freedom to introduce the kinds of disruptive ideas that shake up the marketplace and the competition.

But will the company deploy those disruptive ideas? There’s the rub. For below the surface, there’s another, more pessimistic message in Professor Hargadon’s work: Human innovation at its best does not just have a communal nature; it has an uncontrollable and drunken Dionysian spirit.

Inventing new devices and making them pay off is an organizationally messy process that corporations will tolerate only to a point. Indeed, most innovation-promoting practices in corporations, whatever their intent, actually operate not to freely foster innovation but to control it.

For example, the “skunkworks” structure sidesteps bureaucratic control long enough for a small team to produce results — and then reins in the team. Various “whack on the side of the head”–style training sessions constrain creative thinking within an easily controllable sphere; and product life-cycle efforts seek to strike a balance between loosening and tightening controls. Even the current debate between open source advocates and copyright advocates is really a debate about whether a highly controlled environment (like one with lengthy, Draconian copyright restrictions) is better or worse for innovation.

 
 
 
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