“Almost always great new ideas don’t emerge from within a single person or function, but at the intersection of functions or people that have never met before.” — Clayton Christensen
“I want you to stop writing, stop presenting the Innovation Show, stop speaking at conferences, stop meeting startups and — for the love of God — stop meeting people across the organisation.” As she finished her rant, I couldn’t help but laugh. I thought my boss was joking, after all my job was to drive the innovation agenda for the legacy organisation in which I worked. When I gradually realised she was serious, I asked, “What would you like me to do?”. Without hesitation, she blurted out, “Sit out there at your desk like everyone else and do your job!” as she pointed towards the desks filled with miserable faces sitting obediently at their desks. I turned slowly to look at them and then turned back, cleared my throat and responded, “I think that is the wrong decision.” Needless to say, I left the organisation within two months, but I learned a valuable lesson for transformation projects. Despite the myriad threats to organisations from external competitors with innovative business models, it is most likely crystalised mental models that sink corporations and is doing so quicker than ever before.
Like most legacy companies, this one was divided by department or function. The mental model I pictured was that everything was in a swimlane. Instead, the ropes were not the divisions, there were very real barriers, including mental ones. I remember as a child taking swim lessons and I would set off on my front stroke believing that I had just completed a length of the pool, only to realise that I had actually completed one “diagonal” of the pool. Maybe crossing swimlanes was something I always did, it was wrong in the swimming lessons, but it is not wrong in the modern organisation. After all, how are we supposed to cross-pollinate ideas in an organisation if we never collaborate?
As with most negative experiences, her dictate to stay in my swimlane was a valuable learning experience, even though it was uncomfortable at that moment.
Staying in our swimlanes stifles innovation, whether that be experts in their fields or departments in their organisations. When people come together and share challenges, half-baked ideas and burgeoning new strategies they can collaborate on a way forward. When an organisation limits cross-divisional communication or the sharing of data, they suppress the serendipity that leads to great ideas. We think better and can solve problems more efficiently when we collaborate.
Mechanics and Humanics: Pixar
An organisation that many of us have come to admire is (Disney) Pixar who have given us many blockbusters from Toy Story to The Incredibles to Finding Dory. Pixar leadership understood that collaboration comes from a mix of humanics and mechanics. The mechanics of Pixar comes from how the organisation is designed. In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson tells the story of Jobs’s design of a building that would maximize collaborative conversations. While Pixar’s creative director at that time John Lasseter foresaw a traditional Hollywood studio with separate buildings (silos) for the various functions and projects, Jobs felt that such a structure would create swim lanes and opted for a design that almost forced informal interaction. Isaacson wrote that Jobs felt the digital world can be too isolating: Jobs, who was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings said, “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” This is what I mean by the mechanics leading to the humanics.
Another example comes from this week’s series on The Innovation Show with the author of “Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies”, Geoffrey West. Geoffrey describes cities in much the same way as Jobs visualised the mechanical layout of Pixar. West said, “When I say the word city, anyone listening to this thinks that oh, yeah, the skyscrapers of New York, the boulevards of Paris, you know, I don’t know the streets and the buildings and so on. Well, yeah, of course, that’s the city. But the real city is the people, because the whole point of all that stuff, or that infrastructure is to facilitate social interaction. And to enhance this form of interaction, and positive feedback in the way we interact with each other.”
The mechanics enhance the humanics and the humanics validate the mechanics.
Humanics comes from the mental structures of an organisation. This comes from the top, not just the CEO, but more importantly it comes from the middle management of the organisation. Celebrated Pixar CEO Ed Catmull described collaboration as follows:
“Members of any department should be able to approach anyone in another department to solve problems without having to go through “proper” channels. It also means that managers need to learn that they don’t always have to be the first to know about something going on in their realm, and it’s OK to walk into a meeting and be surprised. The impulse to tightly control the process is understandable given the complex nature of moviemaking, but problems are almost by definition unforeseen. The most efficient way to deal with numerous problems is to trust people to work out the difficulties directly with each other without having to check for permission.”
Geoffrey West told us how diversity is essential for survival, whether that be the survival of the planet, the survival of cities or the survival of an organisation. For the planet, diversity comes in the form of biodiversity. For cities, it comes not just in the form of the diversity of race, gender and ethnicity, but it comes from the diversity of business models, products and services, he cites the death (and rebirth) of Detroit as an example). For organisations, it comes in the strategic choices of the diversity of business models (mechanics), but also in the diversity of thinking, cognitive or neurodiversity. The more diverse a group of people, the more novel the ideas and the more creative the cross-discipline communication.
One of the most satisfying elements of running workshops in large organisations is when you work with a mixed group. In such cases, there is a little hesitancy at the beginning and the role of the facilitator, in partnership with the project sponsor is to create psychological safety and a warm, open environment for thought. In such workshops, rather than being isolated silo by silo, employees work together to share their ideas, their frustrations and their commonalities. People find points of connection and when the workshop is part of a longer-term initiative we encourage overlapping teams to work on multiple projects at once, cross-pollinating ideas as they collaborate.
The FunSaver Effect
Many a Generation X’er (like me), those of us born between 1965 and 1980 experienced the joy and fear of the Kodak FunSaver camera. The Joy came from the ability to capture photos on a night out without the fear of losing an expensive camera (in the day before the Smartphone). The fear came from the ability to capture photos on a night out with the fear of someone snapping you. In any case, Kodak is a posterchild of disruption, but like most victims of disruption, it did many things right for a long period of time. The development of the FunSaver camera provides a great example of cross-swim-lane collaboration.
Rather than working separately, the engineering, manufacturing, and marketing departments created a shared workspace and collaborated to develop a prototype for the camera. Imagine this in your own organisation, rather than sales suggest an idea to R&D or marketing share feedback from focus groups, you all worked in one collaborative, a psychologically safe melting pot of creativity. Designers would work in an agile way, making iterations based on feedback in real-time and sharing these designs as the changes occurred. Everyone was on the same page in every sense of the phrase. While modern technology can make such collaboration even easier, there is nothing like those impromptu interactions where someone utters those magic words “what if” or as science fiction writer Isaac Asimov put it: “The Most Exciting Phrase in Science Is Not ‘Eureka!’ But ‘That’s funny …’ While Asimov referred to Science, the same goes for any act of collaborative creativity.
In a more predictable business environment, command-and-control, swim-lane silos may have made sense, but in today’s complex business environment collaboration is a key to success. In that world, the edges of our organisations need to be fluid with the outside world, but also within the organisations. People should not be stuck in swimlanes but should explore the entire pool. I will leave the final word with the prophetic polymath, architect, theorist, designer, and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller. In “The Wellspring of Reality,” the introductory essay to his Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (public library), Fuller decries swimlanes (my use of that term) as follows:
“We are in an age that assumes the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable. Consequently, society expects all earnestly responsible communication to be crisply brief. Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.”
Amen Bucky, Thanks for Reading