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Published: November 30, 2004

 
 

Recombinant Innovation

With such a taboo in place, innovators tend to solve their problems quietly and unilaterally, often working at cross-purposes. One engineer, solving an electronic problem on a new transformer, might inadvertently increase the heat it emits, thereby causing a problem down the road for the engineer working on its mechanical specs. In a complex product development project, such as one for a car or a computer, the unwillingness to talk openly about problems can reverberate around a launch team for weeks or months, with each new “fix” making life miserable for some other engineer on the team.

Fascinated by these kinds of dilemmas, Andrew Hargadon traded in his engineering job for another graduate student stint at Stanford (this time receiving a Ph.D. in industrial engineering), and began to devote himself to the study of innovative cultures, particularly their counterintuitive aspects. His doctoral thesis and subsequent research explored the climate of several institutions known for their consistent introductions of new products and ideas: IDEO and Apple, plus Design Continuum (which invented Reebok’s pump shoe), Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (famous for creating and then squandering the original graphic user interface computer operating system), Hewlett-Packard’s Strategic Process and Modeling Group (noted for supply chain process innovations), Boeing’s Operations Technology Center (noted for manufacturing process innovations), and two of the most prolific sources of technological leaps in human history: the labs run by Elmer Sperry and Thomas Edison in the late 19th century.

Theories and Practices
Step by step, Professor Hargadon began debunking the idea that innovation depends on inventors. Instead, he began looking at the climate of creativity that innovative leaders, from Edison to IDEO’s CEO David Kelley, had put into place.

“IDEO works well,” says Professor Hargadon, “because people from very different backgrounds are thrown together on a project team. They’ve each worked in three or four very different industries, so they might have 15 different bodies of knowledge to draw upon. And they are open to talking not just about their solutions, but about their problems and mistakes.”

Theories of innovation don’t emerge in a vacuum either. As Professor Hargadon notes in his book, the community theory of innovation has broad academic roots. Sociologist Mark Granovetter’s theory of the importance of “weak ties” figures prominently: Innovators don’t benefit just from deep, intensive teamwork, but from casual connections that lead to chance encounters with unfamiliar ideas. Another influence is the “community of practice” concept. A school of theorists including John Seely Brown (the former head of Xerox PARC), Jean Lave, and Etienne Wenger propose deliberately cultivating informal internal knowledge-sharing networks set up to validate and foster creativity throughout the organization. Professor Hargadon also cites the insights of technology critics like author and strategy+business contributing editor Michael Schrage, who argues for “serious play” as a spur to innovation.

There is also plenty of validation for Professor Hargadon’s theories in the real world. Consider how Procter & Gamble drives innovation by connecting multiple business disciplines to its powerful marketing function. The company’s new approach to R&D, called Connect & Develop, encourages R&D in the early stages of its traditional innovation activities in order to incorporate an understanding of how planned products can be marketed and how they will be received by consumers.

Numerous counterexamples show the perils of solitary innovation. Philo Farnsworth, the reclusive inventor of television, died penniless and bitter because he tried to muscle out all prospective partners and collaborators, and lost to more powerful corporate competitors. Interval Research, the pure-research think tank founded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, shut down after six years, apparently done in partly by its own fierce secretiveness.

 
 
 
 
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