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ZIG ZAG Published in Chinese! November 10, 2014

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
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Great news! My 2013 creativity advice book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, was just published in a Chinese language edition, by Cheers Publishing in Beijing. Just minutes ago, I received my author copy in the mail. It’s so exciting to see that my ideas are available to readers in China!

ZIG ZAG Chinese cover 2014Check out the home page of Cheers Publishing: you’ll see that they’ve translated many wonderful science-based books, including:

* Proust was a neuroscientist (Lehrer)

* Where good ideas come from (Johnson)

* The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (Haidt)

* Shop class as soulcraft (Crawford)

* Design-driven innovation (Verganti)

Many thanks to the team at Cheers Publishing, for their professionalism and their rapid speed in translating and publishing my book!

Debra Kaye’s New Book, Red Thread Thinking March 12, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
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I really enjoyed Debra Kaye’s new book about entrepreneurship and innovation, Red Thread Thinking.  Kaye is what I would call a marketing expert, but nowadays the trendier more correct term for marketing is “brand strategy”. She’s an expert on consumer product trends, and she’s consulted for Apple, Colgate, McDonalds, American Express, you name it–she is a tapped in thought leader.

I was intrigued to find a marketing expert (sorry, branding expert) writing a book about innovation, but after reading Kaye’s book it makes perfect sense. For Kaye, successful branding and marketing depends on identifying the hidden links between observations, experiences, facts, and feelings–and when we do that, we uncover fresh and surprising new insights. She’s right: the psychological research likewise shows that the most original and surprising ideas come from making hidden and distant connections. The first epigraph in her book is Steve Jobs saying “Creativity is connecting things” (I quote the same epigraph in my new book, Zig Zag!)

Kaye’s book tells you how to identify and understand these hidden “cultural codes and shifts in consumer perception” with the goal of “catapulting fresh products to iconic status.” Every Chief Marketing Officer wants that! So how do we do it? Kaye identifies five “red threads”

1. Become better at observing and interpreting what’s around us

2. Take a fresh look at the past

3. Know what makes your market tick

4. Learn how to create a new “language” to make your product stand out, and yet also be universally understood

5. Persevere, review, and refine your ideas but without compromising integrity or core beliefs

I liked this book, because I am a psychologist studying creativity, and this brings a completely different perspective to the same phenomenon: How to engage in behaviors and habits that lead to consistent and deliberate creativity.

China’s Innovation Riddle January 17, 2013

Posted by keithsawyer in Education, Enhancing creativity.
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For years, China has been known for cheap labor and cheap manufacturing costs–that’s why the United States has outsourced so many jobs there. But China’s leaders are trying to change this and to become a more innovative economy. One of their core strategies is to increase the number of college graduates, as Keith Bradsher writes in today’s New York Times:

The aim is to change the current system, in which a tiny, highly educated elite oversees vast armies of semi-trained factory workers and rural laborers. China wants to move up the development curve by fostering a much more broadly educated public.

China is investing $250 billion each year in its universities. In the last ten years, the number of colleges in China has doubled, to 2,409. That’s 1,200 new universities in ten years, which is 120 new universities every year! And Keith Bradsher reports that these are not just phantom campuses–all of the classroom seats are filled. (Their biggest problem is finding qualified instructors.) By 2020, China’s goal is to have 195 million graduates each year (compared to the 120 million predicted in the U.S. that year).

But simply having more graduates won’t automatically result in more innovation:

Much depends on whether China’s authoritarian political system can create an educational system that encourages the world-class creativity and innovation that modern economies require….

The overarching question for China’s colleges is whether they can cultivate innovation on a wide scale–vying with America’s best and brightest in multi-media hardware and software applications, or outdesigning and outengineering Germans in making muscular cars and automated factory equipment.

Bradsher calls this “the innovation riddle” and compares China’s current situation to Japan just after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, Japan focused on university education much like China is doing now. In many ways, it was a huge success; Japan has a large middle class and one of the world’s largest economies. “But partly because of a culture where fitting in is often more prized than standing out, Japan hit an economic plateau.” Economists predict that China’s cost advantage in labor and cheap capital will disappear within 10 to 15 years. The riddle is: How can China transform itself into an innovation economy in just ten years?

Changing Places February 22, 2012

Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks, Organizational innovation.
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When workers change departments for a short time–for example, shadowing another employee in a totally different part of the organization–it enhances the innovation potential of the entire organization. That’s because it results in more “weak links” throughout the organization’s social network. And from research, we know that creativity is more likely to result when information flows through these weak links–because it brings together diverse types of knowledge into surprising new combinations.

Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal* describes many companies that are successfully using this strategy:

To help workers sharpen their skills, stay motivated and identify new roles they might aim for in the future. Moreover, they help address a challenge that many companies are facing: how to better foster collaboration across different specialties and regions.

An Intel, employees can find temporary assignments by searching an internal database. This program just launched last March, and already 1,300 positions have been filled. Other companies finding success with this approach include Virgin America and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

My book Group Genius explains why this works: Because it helps resolve the challenge of “knowledge management.” How do you get information moving through the organization effectively, particularly across organizational boundaries? In addition to this “shadowing” technique, other knowledge management techniques help accomplish the same goal:

  • “Idea labs” that bring cross-disciplinary teams together for one or two weeks
  • Job descriptions that are broad, allowing each employee to cross multiple areas
  • More frequent reassignment of staff

Research shows that all of these methods help to diffuse tacit knowledge–the kind of knowledge that’s hard to capture in computerized knowledge management systems, or in formal documents. And research shows that it’s this tacit knowledge that, more often than not, results in innovation.

*Lauren Weber and Leslie Kwoh, “Co-workers change places.” Wall Street Journal, Tuesday February 21, 2012, p. B8.

Google Buys Motorola: The Real Story August 22, 2011

Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks.
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This is big news: Google buys Motorola for $12.5 billion. Why buy a mobile phone company that’s struggling? What makes it worth so much money? Why does Google want to get into the hardware business, anyway?

Everyone in the industry understands the real reason: Google wants Motorola’s 17,000 patents. Google doesn’t intend to use the patents to invent new products; instead, they intend to use the patents as defensive tools in an obscure but critical corporate battlefield: intellectual property law. Last month, a coalition of companies including Apple and Microsoft paid $4.5 billion for the 6,000 patents of Nortel Networks. Google felt threatened; they needed a comparable pool of patents to seriously compete in the legal battles that are guaranteed to follow.

The reason why legal battles are guaranteed is that every company is vulnerable. There are so many patents on software ideas, and they’re so vaguely and broadly written, that every company might be said to be in violation of something. Google’s chief lawyer recently wrote “A smartphone might involve as many as 250,000 patent claims” that are probably questionable, but still you have to defend against those claims in court. So what happens is that the big guys get their lawyers and accountants together in a room, and they trade patents like poker chips. Eventually, they come to an agreement not to sue one another, sometimes in exchange for a supplementary cash payment (if everyone agrees that one pool of patents is worth more than another).

Apple, Microsoft, and Google are mature companies and they’ll work out a deal. What everyone is more worried about are the so-called “patent trolls.” These are companies that don’t make anything; they only exist to sue other companies for violating their patents. (The nice term for them is “non-practicing entities.”) You can’t negotiate with them because they don’t need anything that you have; they only want a cash settlement.

Is this the way to foster maximum innovation? I’m not a lawyer, but I have to believe the answer is NO.

Also see my previous posts on patent law:


Apple Without Steve Jobs January 16, 2009

Posted by keithsawyer in Organizational innovation.
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I’ve lost track of how many cover stories I’ve read about Steve Jobs’ mysterious illness and his leave of absence from Apple.  The announcement came on Wednesday, and right after the stock markets opened on Thursday morning Apple shares were down 5.7 percent.  Shares recovered Thursday afternoon, but as I write this (Friday Jan. 16th) shares are back down to 80.73.  New York Times reporter Joe Nocera, who has written more than once about his private off-the-record conversation with Jobs last summer, yesterday argued that the time is overdue for Apple and Jobs to tell all (read it here). Also yesterday, Brad Stones wrote in the New York Times “Can Apple Fill the Void?”

A solitary, genius individual, being immortalized as the creative genius responsible for a company’s success. Readers of this blog know what I think about stories like this: they’re always a myth.  Innovation never comes from one person’s genius, and that’s not the way it happened at Apple, either.

It’s well established in the history of computer technology that Steve Jobs did not invent any of the technologies that make Apple products famous.  The Apple II was not the first personal computer.  The MacIntosh was not the first windows-and-mouse computer.  The iPod was not the first portable MP3 player.  And the iPhone was not the first Internet-enabled PDA (I love my iPhone but I had almost all of the same features three years earlier on my Palm Treo).

What distinguishes Apple products is not their technical innovations, but their superior design and their focus on the user experience.  (I’d never want to give up my iPhone and go back to my old Treo!)  People say Jobs was responsible for the emphasis on design at Apple.  But Silicon Valley has been a hotbed of design thinking for decades.  IDEO (and its current CEO Tim Brown) have been promoting “design thinking” for years.  Stanford created an interdisciplinary design-oriented school known as the d-school.  Is it an accident that a company like Apple, profiting on these same philosophies, happens to exist down the street from IDEO and Stanford?  I don’t think so.

There are good reasons, however, for a company like Apple to propagate the myth of a legendary and gifted leader. The same thing happens in big science laboratories, where the assembled postdocs and graduate students have a vested interest in the reputation of the professor that they work for (you can read about this research in my 2006 book Explaining Creativity).  Thomas Edison created the public image of a genius inventor largely for publicity and marketing purposes (historians have known for years that Edison didn’t invent, it was the inventors that he hired who did the inventing).

Steve Jobs is important for Apple in the same way that any gifted and talented CEO is important for their company.  I believe his skills are a uniquely good match for what Apple has needed in recent years.  But his importance is not due to his creativity, or to his unique gift for design.  Apple’s creativity and its design sense are collective, organizational qualities and don’t reside in any one person. Any time you hear someone telling a story about an indispensable genius, you should get suspicious, and start looking for the real story.

Check out my other blog posts about Apple by searching for “Apple” at the upper right of this screen.

The Downside of Downsizing November 14, 2008

Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks, New research.
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The reasons for downsizing are usually good ones–the company is losing money, the stock value is way down, market share is dropping.  Of course, it’s brutal for the people who get let go, but it’s supposed to make the company leaner and better able to survive.  But I’ve just read a research article* that shows there’s an unexpected downside to downsizing: product innovation drops dramatically.  And that usually spells more pain down the road, because without innovation no company can save itself.

Why does downsizing reduce innovation?  One guess is that, there are fewer people to have good ideas.  Another guess might be, the creative people in R&D get let go so that the company can focus on making production more efficient.  The real reason is more intriguing, and more surprising, than both of these.  It’s because downsizing blocks the collaborative webs that innovation emerges from.  As the researchers write, new product innovation depends on what they call strategic linking : “linking the product to the firm’s resources, structure, and strategy…. Innovators must compete with other innovations and with established products for money, people, and access to major resources such as time in the plant and space in the salespeople’s bags. New products also need to become part of the organization’s structure, either as a separate venture unit or as part of an existing division.”

Downsizing blocks innovation because it reduces the effectiveness of strategic linking.  In this study of 12 firms, the ones with the least downsizing solved 48% of strategic linking problems; the ones with the most solved only 23%.  As the authors write, “downsizing breaks the network of informal relationships used
by innovators to work out strategic linkages”–what I call the collaborative web.  Successful innovation depends on entrepreneurial networking and after downsizing, networking is blocked because the people that you’d network with are no longer there.

Part of the problem was that in the firms that downsized, management paid almost no attention to product innovation.  The take-home message?  If you have to cut staff, make sure that the network, the collaborative web, stays strong and survives after the layoffs.  “Managers also must keep the network itself alive in the short run, saving as many of the existing pathways as possible.”  This takes hard work and close attention from senior management.

*Deborah Dougherty and Edward H. Bowman, 1995, “The effects of organizational downsizing on product innovation.”  California Management Review, Vol. 37 No. 4, Summer 1995, pp. 28-44.

Apple iPhone August 23, 2008

Posted by keithsawyer in Everyday life, Innovative networks.
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This week my Palm Treo 650 died and I replaced it with an Apple iPhone. These first few days, I have to say I’m very impressed. It far surpasses the Treo 650 (which cost $499 compared to the iPhone’s $199).

Also, by coincidence, this week I read a 2007 Fast Company article about Apple titled “If he’s so smart…Steve Jobs, Apple, and the limits of innovation”. The gist of the article is that Apple is perhaps a bit TOO focused on innovation. No doubt, their products lead the way (Mac, Newton, iPod, iPhone) but they have tended to lose dominance in a market, soon after other companies enter it.  According to the article, the other companies are better at executing, better at quality control, better at reducing costs and making money.

Even if that’s true, I wouldn’t recommend to Apple to be less innovative, but rather to enhance their execution and management capabilities.  But this raises a perennial management question: is innovation somehow incompatible with effective execution?  For example, the quality control method, Six Sigma, is widely believed to be incompatible with innovation.

What concerns me about Apple is their strategy of controlling the complete product, the complete user experience.  Historically, companies that tried to retain such tight control have always lost out in the marketplace, to other companies that are more open to partnerships and distributed innovation.  In my book GROUP GENIUS, I describe how distributed “collaborative webs” are always more successful than single companies, and I give several examples of how the more closed, controlling company lost out–in spite of starting with a better technology or bigger market share.  I didn’t use this example in the book, but that’s how Wintel beat Apple over the last 20 years.

The Application Store on my new iPhone 3G is very exciting, exactly what Apple needs to do: to open up the iPhone to a bigger collaborative web of innovators and developers.  This will be the real story over the next year.

Ten Rules for Stifling Innovation July 1, 2008

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity.
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In the summer, professors get to read books they’re too busy to look at during the semester.  I’m now reading a classic 1983 book on business innovation: The Change Masters, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter.  It’s amazing that she gets everything right; her key points are in best-selling management books being published today.  (See my June 9th posting “How long will it take?” for another story about how long we’ve known how innovation really works.)

Kanter analyzed six companies in depth; four of them were innovators and two were not. Somewhat tongue in cheek, Kanter proposed a list of ten “hidden messages” that the non-innovating companies sent their employees every day, writing “Imagine something like this hanging on an executive’s wall, right next to the corporate philosophy”:

1. Regard any new idea from below with suspicion-because
it’s new, and because it’s from below.
2. Insist that people who need your approval to act first go
through several other levels of management to get their signatures.
3. Ask departments or individuals to challenge and criticize
each other’s proposals. (That saves you the job of deciding;
you just pick the survivor.)
4. Express your criticisms freely, and withhold your praise.
(That keeps people on their toes.) Let them know they can
be fired at any time.
5. Treat identification of problems as signs of failure, to discourage
people from letting you know when something in
their area isn’t working.
6. Control everything carefully. Make sure people count anything
that can be counted, frequently.
7. Make decisions to reorganize or change policies in secret,
and spring them on people unexpectedly. (That also keeps
people on their toes.)
8. Make sure that requests for information are fully justified,
and make sure that it is not given out to managers freely.
(You don’t want data to fall into the wrong hands.)
9. Assign to lower-level managers, in the name of delegation
and participation, responsibility for figuring out how to cut
back, layoff, move people around, or otherwise implement
threatening decisions you have made. And get them to do it
10. And above all, never forget that you, the higher-ups, already
know everything important about this business.

The Innovation Exchange May 9, 2008

Posted by keithsawyer in Enhancing creativity, Innovative networks, Regional innovation.
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Today’s conference at Washington University, called the Innovation Exchange, brought together top scholars and business leaders to think collaboratively about fostering innovation.  It was hosted by our new Institute for Innovation and Growth.  Keynote speakers included:

Bill Peck (former Dean of Washington U. Medical School and founder of Innovate St. Louis)

Carliss Baldwin (Professor at Harvard Business School and an expert in the relations between design and the economy)

Christoph Loch (Professor of Corporate Innovation at INSEAD, possibly the best business school in Europe)

Jeff DeGraff (Dean of Innovation at the Competing Values Company and a professor at University of Michigan)

Key insights that emerged included:

* The need to transform business school education to teach for innovation

* The desire for managers and innovation champions to have a forum where they can exchange problems, issues, and solutions

* The need for managers and staff to be educated about how innovative companies work, and how they can make their own organizations more innovative

Watch this blog in the coming year, as this new Institute for Innovation begins to take shape.


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