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There has been much ink spilled about innovation over the past decades, but this article from Harvard Business Review is the first one that really rings true with my experiences. The main point of this article is that much prior writing has focused on the fun aspects of innovation, and points out some additional hard work that is absolutely required for meaningful innovation. The authors put forth five maxims, each of which is discussed below.

Tolerance for failure but no tolerance for incompetence. This maxim is the one that rings most true with me: Innovation's progress is often measured in errors per hour, but the errors have to be productive errors that either eliminate classes of potential solutions from consideration or that better approximate a useful solution. And in my experience, extreme competence is required to make the right mistakes, that is, the mistakes that will generate the experience required to eventually arrive at a workable solution.

However, this maxim is also the one that I am most uncomfortable with. The discomfort stems from the choice of the word “incompetence”. After all, what is incompetence? The old apprentice/journeyman/master trichotomy is a useful guide. An apprentice is expected to do useful work if overseen by a journeyman or master. A journeyman is expected to be capable of carrying out a wide range of tasks without guidance. A master is expected to be able to extend the state of the art as needed to complete the task at hand. Clearly, there is a wide gulf between the definition of “incompetence” appropriate for an apprentice on the one hand and a master on the other. The level of competence required for this sort of work is not a function of education, certifications, or seniority, but instead requires a wide range of deep skills and experience combined with a willingness to learn things the hard way, along with a tolerance for the confusion and disorder that usually accompanies innovation. In short, successful innovation requires the team have a fair complement of masters. Yet it makes absolutely no sense to label as “incompetent” an accomplished journeyman, even if said journeyman is a bit uncreative and disorder-intolerant.

All that aside, “Tolerance for failure but no tolerance for non-mastery” doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, and besides which, large projects would have ample room for apprentices and journeymen, for example, our hypothetical accomplished but disorder-intolerant journeyman might be an excellent source of feedback. And in fact, master-only teams tend to be quite small [PDF, paywalled, sorry!]. I therefore have no suggestions for improvement. And wording quibbles aside, this maxim seems to me to be the most important of the five by far.

Willingness to experiment but highly disciplined. Although it is true that sometimes the only way forward is a random walk, it is still critically important to keep careful records of the experiments and their outcomes. It is often the case that last week's complete and utter failure turns out to contain the seeds of this week's step towards success, and sometimes patterns within a depressing morass of failures point the way to eventual success. The article also makes the excellent point that stress-testing ideas early on avoids over-investing in the inevitable blind alleys.

Psychologically safe but brutally candid. We all fall in love with our ideas, and therefore we all need the occasional round of “frank and open” feedback. If nothing else, we should design our experiments (or, in software, our validation suites) to provide that feedback.

Collaboration but with individual accountability. Innovation often requires that individuals and teams buck the common wisdom, but common wisdom often carries the day. Therefore, those individuals and teams must remain open to feedback, and accountability is one good way to help them seek out feedback and take that feedback seriously.

Flat but strong leadership. Most of my innovation has been carried out by very small teams, so this maxim has not been an issue for me. But people wishing to create large but highly innovative teams would do well to read this part of the article very carefully.

In short, this is a great article, and to the best of my knowledge the first one presenting both the fun and hard-work sides of the process of innovation. Highly recommended!

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