Harvard talk on learning and innovation

Today, I’m working in an office at Harvard Business School.  I was invited to give a talk yesterday to the Technology and Operations Management group here, and I must say I’ve been very impressed with the colleagues I’ve met in the last two days.

The title of my talk was “Organizational learning and organizational innovation.”  I argued that learning and innovation share the same key feature: they arise unplanned, unexpected, and emergent, and can’t be commanded to occur.  Organizations are designed in a top-down, structured way that allows the people at the top to control what goes on.  The science of management has, historically, been an attempt to identify the best way to design organizations.  Think of the classic organizational chart.

However, at some point (at least 50 years ago) researchers realized that no matter how hard you try to structure an organization, there’s always going to be stuff that goes on outside of the formal org chart–the informal organization, those social network ties that people form on the fly just to get their work done.  And that realization led to another one: even within the formal structure, nothing would ever work right unless some of that informal, bottom-up, emergent stuff happened too.  Maybe even a lot of it.  The challenge since that realization has been to explain how effective organizations manage to blend both the formal, intended structure and the unintended, emergent processes that always happen when people come together.

My argument is that organizational learning and organizational innovation are always part of the unplanned, unintended, emergent side; they can’t be commanded, and no organizational structure–no matter how clever or well-designed–can make learning and innovation happen.  Fortunately, research now tells us what features of an organization are associated with effective emergent learning and innovation:

  • Lattice organization
  • Teams form and reform spontaneously
  • Dense social networks
  • High information flows
  • Porous boundaries
  • Reduced emphasis on top-down control
  • Creative contributions come from everyone

Thanks to Amy Edmondson for extending the invitation!

Group Genius at Pixar

Inside of Pixar, whose creativity is responsible for great movies like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Cars, and now WALL-E?  Turns out it’s no one person–it’s everyone, working together.  Pixar’s success is based on a special kind of collaborative magic. I just read a great article in the latest Harvard Business Review, by Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, titled “How Pixar fosters collective creativity,” and it seems to me they’ve figured out the secrets of group genius.

It’s been obvious for a long time that no one gets very far in the movie business believing in the myth of the lone genius “artiste”.  For example, in my book EXPLAINING CREATIVITY, I wrote that most Hollywood movies have not one author, not two, but as many as ten different authors working on the script.  (Almost all TV shows are the same way.)  And Catmull starts his article dispelling the loner myth in strong terms: “Creativity involves a large number of people from different disciplines working together to solve a great many problems…A movie contains literally tens of thousands of ideas.”  Depending on one brilliant creator to come up with all of those ideas just wouldn’t make any sense; “every single member of the 200- to 250-person production group makes suggestions. Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization.”  (This is the central message of my book GROUP GENIUS.)

Although each movie has a core team who are responsible for the coherence of the overall product, everyone is expected “to show work in an incomplete state to the whole animation crew” so that “people learn from and inspire each other”.

Pixar believes in the power of what I call “collaborative webs”–networks of expertise that extend beyond the boundaries of any one organization.  For example, their artists are encouraged to publish their research and talk about it at industry conferences, rather than to guard it as a trade secret.  Why?  “The connection is worth far more than any ideas we may have revealed.”

And finally, Pixar’s office space is designed to foster “maximum inadvertent encounters,” just as I advise in Group Genius.  The central atrium contains the cafeteria, bathrooms, meeting rooms, and mailboxes, and Catmull writes “It’s hard to describe just how valuable the resulting chance encounters are.”

I’m delighted to hear it when an organization really believes in the power of group genius, and designs everything from top to bottom to make it happen!

Einstein’s genius

When I give lectures, whether to the general public or to a business audience, my take-home message is that creativity is always collaborative.  I make a strong claim: that no significant creation ever comes from an isolated, lone genius.  Instead, it always takes multiple contributions over time, and creators always work within collaborative webs.

This is hard for many people to accept, because we’ve all heard so many stories about the isolated lone genius.  So when I’m done with my talk, and ready to accept questions from the audience, I always get one question something like this: “What about (insert famous historical creator here)?  Didn’t he work completely alone?”  Now it’s impossible for me to know every biography of every inventor, but after doing this for many years my audience tends to bring up the same names.  One of the names that comes up frequently is Albert Einstein.  Many people learned that he did his Nobel-prize winning work while working full-time in a customs office.  His crazy hair and casual dress fit pretty well with our stereotype of the lone genius.

So I’m delighted to learn of a new book about Einstein, Einstein’s Mistakes, by Hans C. Ohanian, that makes it very clear that Einstein did not work alone.  Take the formula E=mc squared, which you can find on T-shirts underneath Einstein’s image.  It turns out that Einstein didn’t discover this equation; it was known for years before his 1905 paper.  But no one had worked out the math to prove that the equation was right; that’s what Einstein was trying to do in the paper.  But Einstein’s math skills weren’t so great, and he made several critical mistakes.  It wasn’t until 1911 that another physicist, Max von Laue, developed a full and correct proof.

This wasn’t an isolated story, either, according to Ohanian’s book: pretty much all of Einstein’s publications were incomplete and contained errors.  Other physicists, very few of them with such famous names, put it all together and made sure everything worked.

The point isn’t to tear down Einstein’s reputation; Ohanian still believes he deserves a lot of credit.  He often had the right instincts, even if other people had to come along later to prove he had been right.  But his instincts were often wrong, too–for example, his futile search for a unified field theory over the last decades of his life.

I like the E=mc squared story because it matches perfectly everything we know about how new ideas occur: although we tell ourselves a story of a great genius who sees it all in a blinding flash of insight, in fact the real story is always one of small contributions, over long periods of time, with different people making each small contribution.  Einstein didn’t come up with E=mc squared, and he didn’t even prove it was correct.  He played an important role in a collaborative web of multiple scientists working on the problem, and he deserves credit for that.  But that’s a lot less flashy than the myths we tell about the lone genius.