Big Company Innovation Labs Won’t Work

Creativity research* has shown that all companies benefit from very similar innovation strategies, whether they’re technology companies or not. We mostly hear about software and Internet-based startups these days; and most incubator spaces (sometimes called “innovation labs”) are filled with smartphone apps and web developers.

Other industries are setting up innovation labs, and they almost always get built in San Francisco’s Bay Area. There’s nothing new here: back in the 1970s, Xerox, the copier company based in Rochester New York, decided to open its innovation lab in Palo Alto. Today’s Wall Street Journal lists a few of the companies who’ve created spaces in the Bay Area: Lowe’s, Home Depot, Target, Walgreens, Sears, Visa.

I predict these efforts won’t work very well. We already know why, from the legendary failure of Xerox PARC. Back in the 1970s, developers at Xerox PARC invented the first windows-and-mouse computer, the first laser printer, and the first network to link computers (the Ethernet). It was called Smalltalk, and it was at decades ahead of its time. Both Microsoft and Apple based their windows operating systems on what came out of Xerox PARC. But the executives back in Rochester thought they were a bunch of crazy hippies and they said “Hey, we’re a copier company, why are you guys wasting your time on this stuff?” The book Fumbling the Future pretty much says the same thing that I say in my book Group Genius, and today’s Wall Street Journal identifies the key problem: if you create a separate R&D group, to keep the innovative people from being constrained by the traditional company culture, you also isolate the rest of the company from innovation. The labs are just too far removed; different organizational cultures develop; the innovation group just can’t communicate with the rest of the company.

Nordstrom, one of the earliest companies to build an innovation lab (in 2010) found this out. They’ve now shrunk their lab dramatically, and instead have spread innovators throughout the company. Another example: Amazon’s Silicon Valley innovation center failed to meet expectations.

I explain why in Group Genius: For successful innovation, you have to spread a culture of creativity throughout the organization. Creating a separate innovation lab doesn’t work.  It’s just a trendy name for what used to be called the R&D group. We learned that didn’t work back in the 1970s and 1980s. Calling it an “innovation lab” doesn’t make any difference in the underlying dynamics of innovation.


*Sawyer, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration.

How To Fly a Horse: Another Book on Creativity

I really enjoyed a new book on creativity, How To Fly a Horse, by Kevin Ashton. He echoes what I’ve been saying for the last ten years:

  • The flash of insight is a myth;
  • Instead, creativity emerges from many small sparks, that occur over time.
  • Creativity comes from hard work over a sustained period of time so that these successive small sparks lead to successful innovation.
  • All of this is great news, because it means that everyone has the potential to be creative–because it’s not about geniuses being blessed with divine inspiration, it’s about putting in the time and the work.

I have a minor quibble with Ashton’s subtitle, “The secret history of creation, invention, and discovery” because Ashton’s main reveal is not a secret any more. It’s conventional wisdom. For example, two recent books by Steven Johnson (2010) and Walter Isaacson (2014) make the same point, and tell many of the same stories. A lot of what appears in Ashton’s book is in my 2007 book Group Genius or my 2012 book Explaining Creativity. (His title, about flying a horse, refers to the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903; I start the first page of Group Genius with this story.) But still, Ashton is a great scholarly detective. His book is the only place I’ve seen, other than my 2012 book, the debunking of the myths about Archimedes in the bathtub shouting Eureka, about Mozart composing musical pieces in whole cloth, about Coleridge writing Kubla Khan in an opium daze, about Kekule coming up with the benzene ring structure in a dream…actually, maybe Ashton just read my 2012 debunking blog post here (or Ashton could have gotten the real stories from my 2012 Explaining Creativity, which he cites in his references but otherwise doesn’t mention).

This is a well written book, and in addition to the familiar creativity stories and research, I learned some things I didn’t know, like this factoid: You know how we use a light bulb over someone’s head to show they’re having a sudden flash of insight? That image was first used in a 1919 animated film short with Felix the Cat.

I like the book, but if you’re not a creativity nerd like me, and you’re looking for one book to enlighten you about creativity, this isn’t the best book to read to increase your creativity. One weakness is that it’s a series of stories without any guiding structure, without an easy to remember set of practical advice, and without take-home messages. There’s one single message (which I agree with) and it’s that creativity isn’t a genius flash of insight; it’s a series of small sparks that emerge from hard work. But that’s not really new any more.

Here’s what I wrote in my 2007 book Group Genius:

We’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changes the world. But the lone genius is a myth. Innovation always emerges from a series of sparks–never a single flash of insight. (p. 7) Creativity is based in everyday thought. There’s no magical moment of insight, no mysterious subconscious incubation working. (p. 97)

I love that Ashton calls the creative process a “maze” with many steps (p. 64); in my 2013 book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity I developed a very similar visual metaphor, the zig zag:

Creativity does not descend like a bolt of lightning that lights up the world in a single, brilliant flash. It comes in tiny steps, bits of insight, and incremental changes. Zigs and zags. (p. 2)

I wish Ashton had channeled his talent for storytelling with more structure, and had organized his historical material into themes. That would have helped him provide practical advice for the reader. But if you’re a creativity nerd, you need to read this book. There’s a lot of familiar material here (Karl Duncker, the Wright Brothers, Rosalind Franklin and DNA, brainstorming research, Gregor Mendel, Louis Terman, Teresa Amabile…) but a lot of intriguing new stories, as well.

Tips to Maximize Creativity at Work


These tips, from Scientific American Mind, are all also found in the book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity:

  • Become an expert. You need a solid knowledge base. (Zig Zag Chapter 2: LEARN)
  • Observe. Carefully study how people use what they currently have, and what problems they face. (Zig Zag Chapter 3: LOOK)
  • Know your audience. Walk in the shoes of the intended consumer. (Again, LOOK)
  • Step out of your comfort zone. Seek activities outside your field of expertise. (LOOK again)
  • Be willing to work alone. Balance group time with alone time.
  • Talk to outsiders about your work. This helps with novel perspectives. (Research on how to balance solitary and group time is in my book Group Genius)
  • Have fun. A good mood helps! (Zig Zag Chapter 4: PLAY)
  • Take a nap or let your mind wander. Sleep and daydreaming can get you past the impasse. (Again, PLAY)
  • Take a break. Occupy your mind with a different task. (PLAY again!)
  • Challenge yourself. Disrupt your daily routine. Go beyond your initial idea and look for more. Try to improve on other people’s answers. (Zig Zag Chapters 5 and 6, THINK and FUSE)

This is a wonderful set of advice, prepared by Professor Evangelia G. Chrysikou of the University of Kansas.

Surprising Leadership Lessons From Jazz

I just finished reading a delightful book called Yes to the Mess by Frank J. Barrett. In the face of complexity and constant change, Barrett observes that the world’s best leaders and teams improvise: They invent novel responses, and take calculated risks, without a scripted plan and without a safety net. They say “yes to the mess”–similar to Chicago improv theater actors, who are taught to say “Yes, and…” to accept and embrace what their partners suggest, and to build on it and drive the scene forward, even while no one knows where it’s going or what will happen next.

In my own 2007 book Group Genius, I make many of the same points about how creative collaboration is often highly improvisational. But unlike me, Barrett is a professional jazz pianist and has even played with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. And Barrett was one of the first management scholars to note the parallels between improv and business: inspired by the management guru Karl Weick, he organized a 1995 panel at AOM, the annual management scholars’ meeting, and he contributed to an influential 1998 issue of the journal Organization Science. So I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time!

Barrett writes:

Jazz bands actually are organizations designed for innovation, and the design elements from jazz can be applied to other organizations seeking to innovate. Jazz bands…require a commitment to a mind-set, a culture, practices and structures, and a leadership framework that is strikingly similar to what it takes to foster innovation in organizations.

Since Barrett’s 1995 panel at the AOM conference, several business books have appeared that draw parallels between jazz and business. The first was John Kao’s Jamming (1996); there’s also my own 2007 book Group Genius, Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom, and last year’s book by Josh Linkner, Disciplined Dreaming. (And some others I’m forgetting about right now…) So what’s new in Barrett’s book? His treatment overlaps quite a bit with these prior works, but his contribution is to draw out the improvisation metaphor with seven principles in seven chapters:

  1. Master the art of unlearning; guard against the tendency toward routine and structure. Deliberately disrupt routines.
  2. Welcome complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty, by learning how to make “affirmative moves” that drive the situation forward, trusting in the process of group emergence that something positive will emerge.
  3. Perform and experiment simultaneously. What results is unexpected, and often is a “mistake.” Nurture a culture of enlightened trial and error. Embrace failure. (This one reminds me of design thinking.)
  4. Aim for guided autonomy: just the right balance of structure and improvisation. Tolerate dissent and debate.
  5. Jam and hang out. Organizations need to create room for jam sessions, to design for serendipity, by fostering “opportunistic conversations.”
  6. Learn both soloing and supporting. Accompanying others, or “comping,” is a form of followership.
  7. Leaders should practice “provocative competence”–incremental disruption that forces people out of their comfort zones, provoking “learning vulnerability”–moments when people are exploring the unfamiliar.

These are fascinating new concepts, perfectly targeted at business leaders who need to foster greater collaboration and innovation. As Barrett says,

This new era demands focusing on teams rather than individuals…. Leaders must master the art of learning while doing….build a capacity to experiment, learn, and innovate…engage in strategic, engaged improvisation.

This is an engaging and well-written book. If you’re drawn to the jazz and business metaphor, and you’ve enjoyed prior books on this subject, you should add this one to your collection.

Bruce Nussbaum’s New Book Creative Intelligence

Bruce Nussbaum is known for his excellent work as an editor at Business Week, where he founded their quarterly innovation insert called IN: Inside Innovation. He’s now a professor of innovation and design at Parsons School of Design in New York, and he’s just published his first book, Creative Intelligence. It’s a pleasure to read, it’s filled with timely anecdotes, and it’s grounded in the latest research. There are almost 70 pages of footnotes!

What I really like about Nussbaum’s book is his perspective as an expert in design thinking. He tells the story of how his title, “Creative Intelligence,” emerged from a Stanford conference called “The Future of Design” in 2010. In his view, the “design thinking” trend is fading a bit, and giving way to an increasing focus on creativity. The last few years have seen creativity research converge on a core set of shared findings, starting with my 2007 book Group Genius, then with Peter Sims’ 2011 Little Bets, Steven Johnson’s 2011 Where Good Ideas Come From, and Jonah Lehrer’s book now-discredited 2012 book Imagination (which was largely derived from these earlier works). Nussbaum knows this research well, and his book contains many of these messages–particularly emphasizing the importance of collaboration in creativity–but using several anecdotes I wasn’t familiar with. For example, he quotes Keith Richards saying

What I found about the blues and music, tracing things back, was that nothing came from itself. This is not one stroke of genius. This cat was listening to somebody and it’s his variation on the theme. And so you suddenly realize that everybody’s connected here. They’re all interconnected. (p. 9)

As Nussbaum later says, “Creative Intelligence is social: We increase our creative ability by learning from others, collaborating, sharing.” (p. 30)

Nussbaum organizes the research into five “competencies of creative intelligence”: Knowledge Mining, Framing, Playing, Making, and Pivoting. I checked these out pretty closely, because in my own forthcoming book, Zig Zag, I propose eight creativity disciplines. Nussbaum’s five overlap quite a bit with my eight, and I’m intrigued by the differences, as well.

Knowledge Mining. This corresponds to the second and third steps in my book, LEARN and LOOK. Creativity depends on a large body of domain-specific expertise, that’s why it takes years of work before a person can make a creative contribution. But creativity also benefits from an open and inquisitive mind.

Framing. This is closely related to what creativity researchers call “problem finding”–the ability to frame and formulate a question in the most promising way. This is my first step and I call it ASK.

Playing. Sure enough, my book’s fourth step is PLAY. Imagine, get silly, have fun.

Making. And again, my book’s eighth and last step is MAKE. This section of Nussbaum’s book is strong; he describes the new maker and DIY culture, and the impact of cheap 3-D printers.

Pivoting. This trendy term usually gets used to describe when a startup company switches direction in response to customer feedback. My own book’s title, “Zig Zag,” describes the frequent twists and turns that precede successful creativity. By “Pivoting,” Nussbaum means the process that leads “from the inception to the production side of creation.” The core message of my book is that the creative process zigs and zags during that process, and Nussbaum would agree with that. This section of his book has some great practical advice about how to manage the process successfully.

The core message of Creative Intelligence is perfectly aligned with the latest research:

Creative intelligence is about tools, not lightbulbs. It’s something we do, not something that happens to us. It’s about what happens during those moments of insight, but also after; it’s the hard work and the collaborations that can help bring your idea out of your mind and into the world.

Leading for Innovation

I’m reading an impressive new book from Harvard Business Press, the massive 822-page Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice. It contains chapters by leading scholars like J. Richard Hackman, Joseph S. Nye, Michael E. Porter, and Rosabeth Moss Kanter. I first learned about this book when I received an email from one of my European colleagues, the Italian architect Maurizio Travaglini. Travaglini is the co-author of one of the chapters, along with Professors Linda Hill and Emily Stecker of Harvard, and Greg Brandeau of Pixar. What a great set of authors! Their chapter is titled “Unlocking the slices of genius in your organization” and it’s a wonderful and concise summary of what we know about leading for innovation.

I heard from Maurizio Travaglini soon after the 2007 publication of my book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. He was excited by my book, because his architecture firm is named “Architects of Group Genius”– what a coincidence! Travaglini’s firm designs spaces to foster collaborative creativity–for example, they desiged some special session rooms for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

There are a lot of overlaps between this new article and the material I cover in Group Genius, and I’m honored that the authors quote my book extensively. Co-author Greg Brandeau of Pixar contributed many insights about innovation at Pixar, where they live and breathe the message of my book. As this article puts it, “most innovation is generated from the bottom up, by self-organizing teams of talented individuals” (p. 616). The article cites my writings on the Wright Brothers, on creative abrasion and diversity in teams, and they tell similar stories about Thomas Edison, IDEO, Pixar, Herman Miller, Gore, and even MIT’s legendary Building 20.

In my view, the most important contribution of the article is their list of five “paradoxes of innovation”–each one an opposition between two forces, in tension, and maximum innovation results when the two forces are optimally balanced for the business environment, industry sector, and goals of the company.

1. Individual identity — Collective identity

2. Support — Confrontation

3. Learning and development — Performance

4. Improvisation — Structuring

5. Bottom-up — Top-down

In my own research I’ve focused on these last two. I call it the innovation paradox: All innovation comes from a bottom-up, improvisational process, but it has to be guided by top-down structures if it is to result in successful business outcomes. It’s hard to get that balance exactly right, and the exact nature of the balance will vary with every organization. As this new book chapter says:

The leaders in our study understand that innovation is often the result of grassroots efforts. Hence, they encourage and reward both autonomy and attempts at co-design. These leaders encourage peer-driven processes of self-organizing and self-governing…Hierarchy is alive and well in these organizations, but it is used on an as-needed basis…The leaders of innovation that we have studied lead from behind, as opposed to leading from the front.

When you manage the right balance between improvisation and structure, between emergent bottom-up innovation and top-down guidance, you are leading for innovation.

Creativity World Forum 2011

Poster with Sawyer, Gladwell
Event Poster at Ethias Arena

I’ve just delivered my keynote talk at the Creativity World Forum in Hasselt, Belgium. With over 2,000 people in the stadium, this was one of my largest audiences! The morning keynote was by Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, who talked about Web 2.0 and participatory innovation, and the evening keynote was by Malcolm Gladwell, who told several stories about how the first company to create something often is not the company that successfully commercializes the idea. I did the mid-day keynote, right after lunch, and my message was that collaboration is the key to creativity.

The organizers, Flanders DC, did a wonderful job selecting the three of us because all three keynotes reinforced the same message about creativity and innovation: it’s a process over time, that involves many small ideas from a lot of people, that takes unpredictable and surprising paths, and that has many dead ends and failures along the way. It’s a relatively well accepted message these days, of course, but my own contribution is to emphasize the improvisational nature of the process, and how the most successful collaborative groups and companies are the ones that have figured out how to manage improvisation.

After my keynote, I did a special 90-minute workshop for fifty people who had pre-registered, and I focused on specific techniques and exercises, based in psychological research, that help people come up with better ideas. The workshop was great fun–the 50 who made it in were energized and focused on creativity.

Hasselt is known for Jenever, made in these copper kettles

There are people here from all over the world; the 12 worldwide “districts of creativity” are having their annual meeting here (a shout-out to my friends from Creative Oklahoma) and the “Making Creativity Work” international project is also meeting here. I’ve talked to people from Finland, Barcelona, Germany, and Scotland. An incredible event!

Is Innovation a “Business Process”?

I just returned from giving a keynote talk at the Business Process Management Conference. Business Process Management, or “BPM” for short, emerged in the early 1990s as a trend best exemplified by the 1993 book Reengineering the Corporation by Michael Hammer and James Champy. The basic idea sounds like common sense to me: instead of focusing on the structure of your organization–the divisional lines and functional areas–focus on the core processes that create and deliver value (like the order process, supply-chain management). Although “conventional wisdom” has it that BPM was a short-lived fad, in fact the core of the message lives on in widely used management techniques, including six-sigma, and information technology management tools such as ITIL and COBIT.

I worried over my keynote presentation. After all, is innovation a “process”? I think so, and in fact my talk’s title was “the innovation process”. All businesses manage processes of incremental innovation (six sigma might even fall in that category) and new product development (with stage gate approaches). But I don’t think breakthrough innovation can be managed like other business processes. It’s more of an anti-process. By that, I mean breakthrough innovation is not linear; it doesn’t have identifiable stages; the participants and organizational units are unclear. As I say in my book Group Genius, breakthrough innovation is improvisational–it emerges, unpredictably, from a long series of small sparks of ideas. No single one of those ideas determines the final form of the innovation that will later emerge.

In the famous words of the immortal guru Peter Drucker: “When a new venture does succeed, more often than not it is in a market other than the one it was originally intended to serve, with products and services not quite those with which it had set out, bought in large part by customers it did not even think of when it started, and used for a host of purposes besides the ones for which the products were first designed.” (1985)
Yes, innovation is a process.  But you can’t manage it like any other business process; it requires a new vision of management.  After you finish my book Group Genius, I recommend The Future of Management by Gary Hamel.