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Published: November 30, 2004

 
 

Recombinant Innovation

Another think tank, Stanford’s Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), sequesters its fellowship winners in isolated rooms for seven hours a day for a year. “You’re supposed to spend that time thinking great thoughts,” said former CASBS fellow and current U.C. Berkeley political science professor Steven Weber, author of The Success of Open Source (Harvard University Press, 2004). “It was fun for a little while. But by the time March rolled around, many of us were seriously depressed. We could not wait to get out of there.”

Anecdotes like this primed me to believe the community theory of innovation right off the bat. Indeed, I went to visit Professor Hargadon to ask him to explicate it. His passion for the theory was clear, until I asked him to tell me how he had invented the gull wings.

“I had six weeks’ worth of slow ideation,” he said, “of all the different ways you could wrap a cable.”

“You mean,” I said, “that you and your team invented them on your own?”

He winced visibly. He had spent nights and weekends testing his colleagues’ ideas, eventually merging them into a single innovative device. Now, he couldn’t remember adapting the gull-wing concept from any other source. (Vacuum cleaners don’t count because their cord-hooks don’t retract.) “It’s my faith that the gull wings came from somewhere,” he said. I asked him why it mattered so much for him to demonstrate a lineage to other ideas, and he said that if he had been conscious of the source, it might have saved him several weeks of sleepless nights — the extra time it took to think up the idea on his own instead of brokering it.

Even if (like me) you find this latter point unconvincing, it still doesn’t disprove the community of innovation theory. No doubt, if it hadn’t been for the robust community of thinkers at Apple, Andrew Hargadon’s six weeks of ideation would have been less fruitful. Or, as he put it upon reflection, “The community can help bring individuals to the edge and perhaps offer them a safety net. But that last leap to innovation may still need to be an individual one.”

Fostering Respect
In his book, among the qualities of a truly innovative culture, Andrew Hargadon cites connections across disciplines, a good balance between freedom and constraint, and a community base that has the opportunity to work intensively. Yet the most important quality for a community of innovation is not quite named explicitly. You have to read between the lines to see it: Respect for those who take on the role of innovators in the first place.

Most creative people have two needs they must simultaneously satisfy: an obsessive focus on the problem at hand, no matter where it leads them; and the craving for respectability. Innovators have to show to the company and their peers that they are in control, with an enviable and error-free track record. It’s no wonder that, in trying to do all this, many innovators (and companies) get twisted up in knots. Professor Hargadon gets closest to this point when he writes that most successful innovative labs consciously try to reduce people’s exposure to the highly personal derision and rebuke that is common in innovation cultures.

Take Microsoft. Here is a company known for humiliating smart people, both insiders and outsiders. Yet Microsoft also succeeds in generating continuous internal innovation, because of people like Seamus Blackley. In his leadership role in the innovation of the Xbox, he skillfully tapped professional admiration to combine the ideas of PC and video game innovators — two groups who often malign each other. A deliberate culture of mutual respect, when it’s authentic, is contagious and productive.

 
 
 
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