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Why new ideas are both disruptive and necessary

Ubiquity, Volume 2003 Issue July, July 1 - July 31, 2003 | BY Ubiquity staff 

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Why New Ideas are Both Disruptive and Necessary


Management consultant Laurence Prusak on Idea Practitioners, organizational fads, and where to look for new ideas (surprise! It's not on the Net).

Laurence Prusak is a researcher, consultant and author. His newest book, just released and co-authored with Thomas H. Davenport, is "What's the Big Idea: Creating and Capitalizing on the Best Management Thinking," published by Harvard Business School Press.


UBIQUITY: The title of your latest book is "What's the Big Idea" -- so maybe we should start this interview by asking you, What's the big idea of "What's The Big Idea"?

PRUSAK: There are actually a couple of big ideas in the book. One is the whole notion of "Idea Practitioner." We wanted to identify a group of people who we felt had never been acknowledged or even written about in past management literature. And these are Idea Practitioners -- people who, for whatever reasons, are intrinsically motivated, and who latch on to new ideas and bring them into the organization and fight for them. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but they do this over and over.

UBIQUITY: But these aren't "gurus," right?

PRUSAK: No, not at all. They are unsung heroes. They don't originate the idea but they are the transmission agents for ideas.

UBIQUITY: These folks are self-selecting?

PRUSAK: Yes.

UBIQUITY: How do they manage to bring these ideas into organizations?

PRUSAK: Different ways: they read a book, hear a talk, go to a meeting or conference, read a newsletter -- and get hooked on some new idea. And then, using their own networks, their own skills, and their own devices, they try to get champions for the idea. We wanted the book to describe the whole ecology of business ideas -- where they come from, how they end up in firms, what their fates are. We found that usually about 200 or so people invent or develop these ideas or develop them, by publishing them, speaking about them, getting the ideas out into the real world. And they make a good living at it. They're an interesting mix of academics, consultants, writers, journalists and some executives.

UBIQUITY: What, if anything, can be done systematically, programmatically, to encourage these people?

PRUSAK: I don't think much, to be honest with you. Other people might disagree. I mean, that's sort of an open question. I do think that if you had some people like that in your organization, you should reward them, acknowledge them Š Certainly don't fire them! (Yet most organizations don't really want these people.)

UBIQUITY: Why don't organizations want them?

PRUSAK: People like that tend to be disruptive. If I'm the head person of an organization, they'll come to me and say: "Wait a minute." Or they'll come with some new idea that they actually want me to think about! It's Quality, it's Knowledge Management, it's Reengineering, it's Management By Objectives, it's whatever. We have a list of several hundred ideas in the back of that book, and even so, there are many more Big Ideas we just didn't list. Most people in organizations -- including the executive -- just want to maintain an equilibrium. They'd like to just keep going along doing tomorrow what they did yesterday. But then these Idea Practitioners come in and they disturb the equilibrium. I mean, if someone's telling you about a new idea you need to listen to, it means what you're doing could be improved upon or is wrong -- and people don't always like hearing that.

UBIQUITY: Do new ideas always compete with each other?

PRUSAK: Absolutely. Yes, because most organizations can't focus. Sometimes they get focused on three or four or five at the same time. General Electric managed to do that, and Citicorp, and a few others. But usually one or two ideas become predominant and then they drive out the others. You don't hear about Re-engineering anymore, for example. An idea is hot one minute and then it gets driven out by other things. In "What's the Big Idea? Tom Davenport and I wrote about the lifecycle of ideas in organizations: how they start, rise, peak -- and then either get rejected, or fail of their own weight, or get accepted and systematized.

UBIQUITY: People tend to be very cynical about the way all the management fads start chasing one another.

PRUSAK: Yes, and I think it's for a good reason. I blame it less on the Idea Practitioners than on a lot of the consultants, journalists and vendors who will sell almost anything for any reason. This is, after all, the land of PT Barnum, so I'd be skeptical myself if I were in that position of watching organizational fads come and go... On the other hand, if you reject all these things out of hand, you're missing very important and substantive movements that can improve a firm, and we show in this book firms that have been like that. Sure, the skeptics can say, "Oh, we don't believe in this Big Idea business, we don't believe in all this stuff." But usually the firms run by those skeptics disappear, whereas other organizations that try to evaluate and use new ideas are still flourishing.

UBIQUITY: Is it perfectly conceivable that an idea that would be very appropriate to company X could in no way be appropriate to company Y?

PRUSAK: Yes, I think so. Surely, some ideas are much more relevant to pure service companies than, let's say, heavily manufacturing ones. I haven't noticed much Knowledge Management activity in supermarkets but I see tons of it in complex process organizations.

UBIQUITY: Compare the management of knowledge to the management of people. Is the management of people more difficult? For example, most creative people tend not to want to be managed, and that's a serious obstacle, isn't it?

PRUSAK: Yes, and I think that probably the next book I'm going to write is something on that, and Tom Davenport might write a book on it, too. As the world economy moves more and more towards services and knowledge-based activities, the forms of management we have today just aren't applicable. They're much more based on management of land, labor and capital rather than the management of brainpower. The forms of governance, rewards and bureaucratic hierarchies we have are awful for managing knowledge. Universities are much better at it, frankly, as crazy as they may be. But I think that most firms must acknowledge that command-and-control knowledge management is not going to work.

UBIQUITY: You say universities are better at managing knowledge than corporations are?

PRUSAK: Yes, insofar as working with knowledge is concerned.

UBIQUITY: Why is that?

PRUSAK: Because universities are not as hierarchical as most corporations. They're much more open, they place a much higher value on knowledge, and they value debate. Of course, they certainly have their own nuttiness (and I've worked in universities), but their acceptance that knowledge is a valued thing is much greater than the acceptance shown by the Fortune 500.

UBIQUITY: What about consultants?

PRUSAK: In some ways, consultant firms are the most avid advocates of new ideas, because if they don't bring new ideas to clients, what the hell are they doing? So the firms best at that are much better as consulting firms. There's almost a direct correlation. Those consultants that latch on to new ideas, steal them, appropriate them, develop them, and get them into their own repertoires they bring to clients certainly have a great advantage over those that just sell cost-cutting or pure process work.

UBIQUITY: Is there a rhythm to the way new ideas come over organizations? A pattern? A way of predicting them?

PRUSAK: They come about every two/three years. As for patterns or predictability, I can't figure it out. Of course, I could tell you what the ideas are, but why they come and go is simply because they either get rejected or become socialized. If they're rejected, it's time for a new idea -- and if they're accepted, it's also time for a new idea, because those ideas got implemented and now it's time for new energy.

UBIQUITY: So then is it somehow desirable to stir things up by some new idea every three years?

PRUSAK: I think so. One thing, I think a lot of people do this because work tends to be boring, and the introduction of something new keeps them on their toes. So, among these Idea Practitioners, I think if they were told there are never going to be any new waves, new ideas, they'd go crazy, maybe they'd jump off the roof. So I think it's a way of creating energy, and sometimes it's awfully good in an organization to create new energy. Firms get stale, boring, dull and this energy has spillovers. So even if the energy's about just one type of idea -- be it Knowledge Management, Re-engineering, MBO, Quality -- everyone gets excited and starts to look at a lot of things differently. Maybe it's technology that they start to look at differently, or process work, or HR policies. I think change of itself can be a very good thing. It's deadly to work in a large organization where none of this occurs.

UBIQUITY: But isn't there sort of a Dilbert phenomenon of skepticism about management faddishness?

PRUSAK: Yes, I think there is, and I can certainly see why. But without new ideas, that phenomenon would just be worse.

UBIQUITY: As you've watched these different movements over the years, have there been one or two that you've loved? And one or two you've hated?

PRUSAK: I think Re-engineering started out legitimately and only later became an evil force. In the beginning it was simply an idea to redo processes using the then-new applications of information technology, but eventually it became a wicked thing: laying off loads of people just to get a company's stock price up. It became a real hierarchical game for senior managers, and it was just awful. In contrast, I think the Quality movement saved the butts of many American large businesses. It's been very successful. And then there's Knowledge Management, which has also been very successful, by getting people to concentrate and to ask: "What do we really know as an organization? How do we use what we know?"

UBIQUITY: What were the failures?

PRUSAK: Well, besides Re-engineering (which turned into a failure after a promising start), I'd say the failures generally were based on some of the more Taylorist time-motion kinds of ideas. Also, the deep process-based approach to things didn't go very far, and neither did Artificial Intelligence and Expert Systems. I remember when there were all these books and conferences and the IT world was all hyped about AI and Expert Systems, which were part of a technology wave but became a management fad as well.

UBIQUITY: What about consulting itself? Any fads or trends?

PRUSAK: I'll tell you this: the old IBM/Accenture model of selling young programmers at X amount of dollars per hour is dead. China and India are killing that. So if consultants don't bring new ideas they'll fail, because you can't win by selling kids anymore. That can be done cheaper in China or India, so consultants have to win on new ideas. Accenture's whole advertising campaign is about that now, and I bet IBM bought Pricewaterhouse for that same reason. (Just to pick two firms I'm familiar with.) I mean, that's what I'd do: I'd look for new ideas, new methods, new approaches, new concepts, and new tools that you could bring to clients. Clients really expect that. I remember a senior vice president at General Electric telling some people I was with: "I expect you people to come in here with new ideas. If you tell me what I already know, I don't need to waste my time with you." I thought he was exactly right. The people he told that to were annoyed, but I figured: "Well, why shouldn't he say that?"

UBIQUITY: Speaking of kids being used in organizations, do you have much exposure to the kids coming up now? The new wave of knowledge workers?

PRUSAK: Yes, I do actually. More than you'd imagine.

UBIQUITY: And what's your experience with them been?

PRUSAK: The problem with them is that they think everything in the world's on the World Wide Web. And they're wrong -- that's just not correct. I think they're missing a huge amount by just assuming the Web encompasses all new human knowledge.

UBIQUITY: What kinds of things are you thinking of that are not on the Web?

PRUSAK: Discussions at universities, hallway discussions in firms, presentations at conferences. By the time something is printed, and legitimized, and authenticated, and put on the Web, everyone already knows it. It's sort of like the price of a stock. If you really want to know what's going on, you've got to go where the action is: big research institutes, major universities and conferences where there's more give-and-take before the ideas get formalized into a document.

UBIQUITY: As you know, the sponsor of "Ubiquity" is ACM, which of course does publications and conferences and so forth.

PRUSAK: Yes, exactly. It's a developer of knowledge, and a perfect example of what I'm talking about. The Web's fine for many things, but not enough if you're going to look for the leading-edge stuff. You need to go to leading-edge conferences. The kids need to be disabused of the notion that everything worth knowing is on the Web. Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who invented the Web (and who incidentally sits next to me at church sometimes), certainly doesn't think the Web is the one all-powerful all-encompassing knowledge machine, and if he doesn't think that no one else should either. Yet a lot of these kids do. Maybe it's my age showing, but I think if you really want to learn and develop new ideas, you have to argue, and talk, and be part of a live situation. I just don't believe it can be done by screens. You have to learn from people.

UBIQUITY: What's your own educational background?

PRUSAK: I took a Ph.D. in the history of ideas at NYU, and then I took another degree in information science later on, at Simmons College here in Boston. I taught for a while, then I got interested in business and consulting, and now I've sort of come back to the history of ideas, oddly enough. I think firms are all run by ideas whether they know it or not. Behind a lot of activities are some ideas that aren't articulated -- and sometimes not even identified.

UBIQUITY: Does new technology count as a special kind of new idea? Does any new technology create new kinds of socialization?

PRUSAK: That's a good question and people have different approaches to that question. There's a lot of dispute about that on a very abstract level. But I'm not sure it does. I'm more interested in the less-known social technologies: what interventions can you make to make people work in a more collaborative way, a more cooperative way, a more innovative way -- and I don't think technology does that.

UBIQUITY: Example?

PRUSAK: Take the telephone or e-mail as technologies. I don't take every call and I don't answer every e-mail simply because I have the technology. There has to be some incentive, some feeling that, "OK, I'll respond to this person." And that's true within firms as well. One of the failings of certain technology models is the notion that if you have a good communications technology, people will want to communicate all the time about the most valuable things they know. But that's bunk; there's no truth to that at all!

UBIQUITY: No doubt you have similar feelings about the cell phone.

PRUSAK: I certainly do. I personally can't imagine why people would constantly want to be talking on cell phones. On the other hand, I must admit that in some very successful countries, people use cell phones constantly. I was recently in Finland, which is a very successful country, and people there are on a cell phone constantly. You see the same thing in Northern Italy, which is the richest part of Europe. So I can't assert that cell phone madness detracts from a country's collective wealth.

UBIQUITY: But you don't think it could be a fad like CB radio or something, do you?

PRUSAK: No, I think it's here to stay, though there must be a substratum of people who will never use the things. One would think that there's got to be a limit. I mean, I wouldn't ever allow instant messaging. On the other hand, it's selling, isn't it? There must be quite a few people who want it. There's a lesson there somewhere.

UBIQUITY: Do you think a social development like that can be predicted?

PRUSAK: I'm not sure. But, as I've suggested, I think a tool is best understood in a social context, and I don't think you can treat a technology as a standalone thing, because it doesn't exist apart from everything else -- it's used in a context of how one gets work done. More important than the actual tools are the overall social structure, the particular incentives, the product being produced, and so forth.

UBIQUITY: When you give talks on these things, what do people find hardest to grasp?

PRUSAK: That there's a difference between information and knowledge.

UBIQUITY: Really? By now one would think the difference would be fairly well known.

PRUSAK: No, you'd be amazed. I've heard people in organizations say: "Oh, we have knowledge, we work with knowledge. We have data warehouses." Of course, one thing has almost nothing to do with the other. So that's still a problem.

UBIQUITY: Let's go back to your academic background. How did someone with a Ph.D. in the history of ideas become a management researcher and consultant?

PRUSAK: I got out of academics when I was 25. I'd had enough of that, and I just wanted to get out into the world. I found that the whole rigmarole of academia can drive you crazy unless you have a certain kind of temperament.

UBIQUITY: Well, presumably, with your background, you would have some predisposition to certain kinds of education.

PRUSAK: I'd say that's true and, you know, I think you're right.

UBIQUITY: And what would that predisposition be?

PRUSAK: Oh, definitely liberal arts. I wouldn't hire somebody who as an undergraduate didn't major in some sort of arts and sciences program. For work in consulting, I would never hire an undergraduate major in accounting or engineering. They're not broad enough. Clearly, if I want to drive over a bridge, I want to have it designed by engineers who know what they're doing. But for consulting or the sort of work I do, I'd only hire arts and science people. (To say nothing of people I want to hang around with. It's like you say, it's my own predilection.)

UBIQUITY: Let's go back to the point you were making earlier about the way ideas come in waves.

PRUSAK: In our book we put down for the first time the lifecycle of these ideas. We call it the P Cycle of a successful business idea, because every phase starts with the letter P (at least in English); we found that they all start out as Pilots or Projects, and they move up to Programs and Platforms, and then (if they don't get rejected and die) they become Perspectives, or they become Pervasive in organizations. We think we're the first ones to have really elucidated this P cycle, and we think it's reasonably accurate.

UBIQUITY: What causes the P Cycle to begin?

PRUSAK: Almost every business idea is a variation of three themes: efficiency, effectiveness and innovation. There's almost nothing that isn't related to the quest of finding solutions to the problems arrayed in one or another of those three themes.

UBIQUITY: Engineers and designers are often accused of finding solutions before they know what the problems are. Have you found that?

PRUSAK: Yes, to a large extent. Don't you think that solutions create their own problems? There's a famous theory in organization behavior that says just that. It's called the "Garbage Can Theory of Decision Making." Very often, people go into meetings with the solution looking for a problem. That happens in a number of domains, and it's pretty constant in human affairs, not just among engineers or designers. Products create their own demand. We used to think of marketing as an issue of supply and demand, but there was no demand for cell phones until they showed up.

UBIQUITY: Well, summing up, what kind of advice would you give software engineers and other technical people who want to incorporate in their careers the kinds of ideas that you have?

PRUSAK: Oh, I'd read all the time, and go out there -- go to conferences, go to meetings, talk to people, join consortia, and do things that aren't in your own domain. Don't talk to yourself. Don't talk to just your peers. Get out. It's astounding to me how little communication there is between the functions and departments in organizations. If you look at the classic textbook on human resources, you won't see any reference in there to technology. If you take a technology textbook, you won't find any reference to HR. These two things have a lot to do with each other, but the people doing IT and the people doing HR don't know anything about what the others are doing. So my advice would be: Get out and meet people and talk to them! Go to different things, try different things, expand your mind a bit, and get some new ideas to think about.

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