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!

10 thoughts on “Harvard talk on learning and innovation

  1. Dear Dr. Sawyer

    I have been a regular reader of your blog as well as your academic work, and your ideas have helped me shape my own research ideas to a great extent.

    I am a final year Doctoral Student at IESE Business School, Barcelona. In my PhD thesis, I have precisely paid attention to what you are mentioning in this post – the “emergent” part of team functioning and structure and its impact over Creativity. I will send you my work as soon as possible for your perusal and comments.

  2. Dr. Sawyer,

    I thought you promised to post every Friday!

    I’m part of a large movement in the software development industry called Agile, which is best described by the Agile Manifesto at http://agilemanifesto.org . Agile arose as an alternative to plan-driven, phasewise, “waterfall” approaches that break down when requirements change.

    Within the Agile movement there are several different approaches that vary in implementation details but are fundamentally the same. The simplest, and best known of these is called Scrum (as in rugby).

    Scrum uses cross functional, self organizing development teams of about seven people working in fixed iterations (typically 30 days or two weeks) toward goals they negotiated with the business side. At the end of each iteration the team demonstrates the product increment they’ve built, revising the requirements for the next iteration. We discover the requirements through successive approximations (rather than all up front), which of course entails some rework.

    While rework in the manufacturing world is seen as failure, the software industry has started to accept that reworking mistakes is a necessary part of the inherently inefficient process of new product development.

    During each iteration, the Scrum team members report to each other each day, rather than to a boss or lead developer. A coach called a ScrumMaster (an misleading name since he’s not anyone’s “master”) is responsible for group flow. The ScrumMaster facilitates resolution of impediments and protects team members from outside demands.

    These self propelled teams outperform traditional micromanaged teams because of principles you describe in _Group Genius_. I’m curious whether you’re aware of the Agile movement or the Scrum framework for new product development.

    I’ve found _Group Genius_ useful and inspiring. The past month I’ve dug pretty far into it, including the source materials in your bibliography. I’ll be presenting implications of all this for Scrum teams at a Scrum Gathering in Stockholm next week. I know you can’t make it, but thought you might appreciate knowing some of the places your writing is making a difference.

    –mj
    Michael James
    Software Process Mentor
    Scrum Trainer
    Danube Technologies, Inc.

  3. You are exactly right that Scrum and other agile technologies are examples of group genius. Thank you for describing this to the blog’s readers! I’m delighted to hear that you’re finding my book useful.

    You may not know that in my first career I was a software developer and consultant (my computer science degree was from MIT in 1982). In the last few years I’ve been studying programming pairs in a research project with a colleague in our computer science department, Ken Goldman. (He is now on leave and is working at Google.) These are student teams and they seem to learn better when working in pairs.

    You said the Scrum teams “outperform traditional micromanaged teams”. Do you know of any actual research studies that demonstrate that superiority? If so, I’d like to blog about them here!

  4. Reading your post, Mr. Sawyer, I remembered somehow “weak and strong ties”, talking about networks. I’ve read some articles, and it’s just amazing (I love networks) when you think about how relationships are established as well as their influences in the organization and our lifes what concers flow of information…

  5. There is a wonderful article by Ron Burt on networks and good ideas:

    Burt, R. S. (2004). Structural holes and good ideas. American Journal of Sociology, 110(2), 349-399.

    Here’s another fascinating article about weak/strong ties and innovation:

    Uzzi, B., & Spiro, J. (2005). Collaboration and creativity: The small world problem. American Journal of Sociology, 111(2), 447-504.

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