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The trouble with out-of-the-box thinking

Ubiquity, Volume 2003 Issue September, September 1- September 30, 2003 | BY Ubiquity staff 

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Andrew Hargadon on continuity and its critical role in the innovation process


Andrew Hargadon on continuity and its critical role in the innovation process


Andrew B. Hargadon is an Associate Professor of Technology Management at the Graduate School of Management at University of California, Davis, and Director of Technology Management programs. Prior to his academic appointment, he worked as a product design engineer and project leader at IDEO and Apple Computer and taught in the Product Design program at Stanford University. Hargadon's research focuses on the effective management of innovation, and he has written extensively on technology brokering, the role of learning and knowledge management in innovation, and the strategic nature of design. He is the author of "How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth about How Companies Innovate (Harvard Business School Press, June 2003).

UBIQUITY: The common wisdom is that people should think "outside the box." What's your reaction to that?

ANDREW HARGADON: The term "out-of-the-box thinking" came from solutions to the so-called "nine dot problem" -- where there are three rows of three dots and the problem is to connect all the dots with just four lines. The solution lies in drawing a line that goes outside the imaginary "box" formed by those nine dots. "Thinking out of the box" has come to mean thinking of a solution that is somehow outside of what you already know and do, coming up with something wholly new. Sounds great, but does it work? Studies have shown that, when you tell people to think out of the box in solving the nine-dot problem, they don't do any better than when you just let them go at it. Pushing people harder to think out of the box doesn't work. Many of the revolutionary ideas in the technologies and arts don't come from the person who solves the problem by thinking out of their box. It comes from the person who has seen the right solution already somewhere else -- who has other boxes to think in.

UBIQUITY: Are you suggesting that innovation is more about the past than it is about the future?

HARGADON: That's an interesting way of putting it. It is about understanding our past because that is the pieces we use to build our future.

UBIQUITY: Talk about the "Great Man" theory of invention.

HARGADON: The Great Man theory is the notion that behind every great innovation is a single individual -- usually a man. It attempts to write a simple story about every innovation. But Ford didn't invent the automobile, Edison didn't invent the light bulb, and the Wright brothers didn't invent the airplane. The simple story strips away all the other people with whom that person worked, both before and afterwards, and their critical contributions to the innovation process. It also perpetuates the notion of invention -- that things didn't exist before that particular person started working on them. Historians of technology have been railing against that theory for almost a century but it doesn't seem to have much effect in the popular understanding. Edison was probably one of the people most responsible for perpetuating the theory.

UBIQUITY: Give an example.

HARGADON: Edison didn't invent the light bulb. In fact, his patent on the light bulb was originally turned down because it was too similar to one that was patented 30 years prior. Even Edison's laboratory assistants were in on the Great Man theory. Francis Jehl said that, once they realized that Edison the man was as important as the inventions, they all "bent towards the process of myth making" -- of making sure that everybody thought and believed that Edison was doing all of the work. It was a great way to attract investors and customers alike.

UBIQUITY: How do you perceive the distinction between invention and innovation and how do they relate?

HARGADON: Innovation is the practical exploitation of any novel idea. Novel ideas can be inventions in the strict definition of the term, which means they didn't exist before, but most often they're not. Instead, they're based on taking an idea that's been developed somewhere else -- or combining a number of existing ideas -- and introducing them to a market that hasn't seen those combinations before. I have been struggling for the last five years to find true inventions. I've had a hard time finding anything that wasn't based on something that already existed.

UBIQUITY: Why is it difficult to find true inventions?

HARGADON: Part of the problem is that we're talking about two sides of the same coin. Every new idea has elements that are purely new, that never existed before. But it also has elements that already existed. E.H. Gombrich, the art historian, said, "There's no such thing as the immaculate perception." He meant we simply can't think of things that we haven't got some model for already in our head. Most of the time when somebody creates something new they have built it from pieces of things they've seen before. That doesn't take away from the novelty, but it does add a complexity of continuity. To replicate the innovation process you must appreciate the role of continuity, or how ideas draw on the past.

UBIQUITY: You mentioned innovations in art. Do you think that artists approach innovation in the same ways as innovators and inventors in industry?

HARGADON: The nice thing for artists is that they as individuals can create a great deal, whereas in industry almost every venture requires a team if not an entire organization's worth of resources. But that said, I think that the creative processes are similar in many ways. Picasso relied on images gathered from the press to create the original ideas for Guernica, his famous mural. Nathan Oliveira, one of America's great figure artists, talks about originality being an end rather than a point of departure. He begins with an image, either a painting by somebody else or a picture that he's seen, then paints it over and over again until it evolves into something that is originally his. Many artists do that. They take their inspiration and distill it down to an essence. Without that original inspiration from something that's already out there already, they'd have a hard time.

UBIQUITY: What about movie directors?

HARGADON: Those who produce movies have a harder time -- they need to be able to sell the idea before they make it. So everything tends to be a combination of previously existing and successful stories. Clueless was Jane Austen's Emma meets Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

UBIQUITY: Continuing with the arts, what are your thoughts on music?

HARGADON: The music community has developed a culture in which continuity is not only acceptable, it is open and honest. Everybody talks about their influences. Many musicians will explain where they found the beat or set of chord changes that enabled them to do something. David Crosby talks about the influence of The Beatles. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds talks about combining Dylan, the Beach Boys and Bach to create their hit song "Tambourine Man." One of Elvis's earliest recordings, "Blue Moon of Kentucky," was an old country ballad by Bill Monroe set to a rhythm and blues beat.

UBIQUITY: Can you put a description of your book on a baseball card? Can you reduce it to an algorithm or a recipe that would tell a person how to become a rich innovator?

HARGADON: I can give you the two-minute elevator talk, I suppose.

UBIQUITY: Yes, do that.

HARGADON: The book recognizes the importance of continuity and its critical role in the innovation process. By focusing on recombining existing ideas -- rather than inventing new ones -- we can better exploit the sources of innovation and, at the same time, increase the likelihood of their impact. It's much easier to think of things that have already been done and, when you introduce those ideas into new markets, they are already well developed. The trick is putting yourself or your firm into position to be the first to see these opportunities. Highly successful firms have developed a set of innovation strategies, called Technology Brokering strategies, that enable them to move between different worlds, to see how ideas from one market's past can be used in new ways in another market.

UBIQUITY: What are the two critical two roles of brokering?

HARGADON: The first is to bridge different worlds by moving between industries, markets and knowledge domains and seeing the range of existing ideas that are already out there. The second role is to build a new community around the ideas to attract not only customers but also competitors and suppliers. Don't focus on inventing and hoarding the rewards of that invention but instead on creating a community that wasn't there before.

UBIQUITY: What kind of response do you get to these ideas?

HARGADON: It's often a quite emotional response. Many people that I talk to are interested in figuring out how to do innovation but about a third of them say, "I'm already doing that. I just didn't have a name for it. I want you to come and tell my boss what I do."

UBIQUITY: Corey Billington from HP said about your ideas, "He was trying on these technology brokering concepts and they work. They've helped make HP an innovator in supply chain management, saved millions and delivered impressive results." Care to comment?

HARGADON: When he said that I had to stop and ask, "Wait a minute, Corey. I learned a lot from watching you as part of the data that I used for building the book." His response was, "I knew what I was doing but I didn't have a good sense of understanding how and why it was working." I've gotten similar responses from many people who say, "I've always thought I'm not creative but somehow I get the job done." My answer is that most people don't realize they are being their most creative when they are not trying to be creative, when they're simply solving the problem by using ideas they've seen used somewhere else before.

UBIQUITY: Let's talk about some of the rules from your book, starting with the first rule, "The future is already here."

HARGADON: William Gibson was once asked how he came up with his amazing visions of the future for his science fiction novels. His answer was, "The future is already here. It's just unevenly distributed." He finds small groups of people doing revolutionary things and then imagines what it would be like if everybody was doing those things. In many ways, our approach to innovation and creativity is misguided when we carry around these lay theories of the Great Man and look for ideas that never existed before. We try to come up with something that nobody's ever thought of and we try to do it by ourselves. When you embrace Gibson's approach or definition, you realize that the real trick to coming up with a creative idea is to go out and find it. Find somebody else who's already doing it and find out where you can use it again. It's a whole different motivation. In fact, it turns it into a search process.

UBIQUITY: Talk about the second rule, "Analogy trump's invention."

HARGADON: It's related to the first rule. It's much easier to recognize the similarities between two things (analogy) rather than come up with something that you've never thought of (invention). Solving problems with analogies means having an open mind, it means having seen many different things, and it means admitting that, whatever problem you're attempting to tackle right now, you're likely neither the first to try nor the most qualified. Somebody somewhere else has already solved this problem. Find out what they did and build on what they created.

UBIQUITY: In your book there's a quote that says to the effect that it's not a question of thinking outside the box. It's about thinking inside several boxes. What does that mean?

HARGADON: People don't think out of the box. They think in other boxes. The difference is that the new market hasn't seen those other boxes before. If a manager pushes employees, or we push ourselves, to come up with something new, to think out of the box, we won't get the results we want.

UBIQUITY: So instead of thinking out of the box you ask them to analogize.

HARGADON: Right. Think of other boxes that are similar. Think of other places where this might have been done before. The farther afield you go the more revolutionary will be the ideas you find. Oftentimes they'll work just as well in your field. For example, Design Continuum designed the Reebok Pump shoe around an inflatable insert made from IV bags. Part of the challenge is overcoming the hubris of thinking that your problem has never been attacked before, your issue has never been solved by anybody else before, or your industry is unique. There's that old question of whether, for example, if a high school teacher has taught history for 15 years do they have 15 years of experience or do they have one year of experience repeated 15 times? In many ways when people have spent a lifetime in an industry they tend to think that they have acquired 30 years of experience when in fact they probably acquired the first three years 10 times over.

UBIQUITY: Speaking of industries, are there important, or maybe obvious, differences between different industries and professions? For instance, you are a mechanical engineer. Do you notice different styles of creativity between, say, engineers and computer scientists and management people?

HARGADON: Yes. It's tough to tease out the reasons why. Part of it has to do with the maturity of the industry. There was an enormous amount of innovation in programming and software, for example, because there were no entrenched models. That's starting to diminish as more and more people look back on what their organizations have done or what code they've written before and use it again. They're more efficient but less innovative because they are searching less broadly to find solutions. Another part of it comes down to the structure of work. For example, teachers or doctors tend to work alone. They work with patients or students most of the day. As a result, they don't innovate in the practices of teaching or patient care because they get few chances to see what others are doing. We teachers rarely sit in on other teacher's classes. After their training, doctors rarely sit in on other doctor's patient care.

UBIQUITY: They'd be overcome by the horror.

HARGADON: Exactly. And it'd be difficult to bill their time. How do you justify having a doctor spend a quarter of the day watching other doctors? It seems redundant. In many ways that's where the ideas move across boundaries. Somebody might come up with a wonderful way to teach a particular subject, and chances are good that nobody else will know about it. It's the same with doctors. It's only in those settings where they are brought together that the real answers come out. In programming it only happens when other people go in and read your code, for example. Mechanical engineering is wonderful in that way because you can see easily what other people have done. But in a lot of industries it's very difficult to see what other people have done.

UBIQUITY: What do you teach at Davis?

HARGADON: I teach managing the innovation process itself, from managing individual creativity on up to organizing organizational innovation strategies.

UBIQUITY: Are you in the mechanical engineering department?

HARGADON: No. I got my Ph.D. in industrial engineering but moved to the management department of the Graduate School of Business. There are only a few of us who practiced as engineers before going into business school. It has made me somewhat of an outsider as far as the management literature goes, but it has allowed me to see many connections.

UBIQUITY: That leads to your third rule, which is, "Find your discomfort zone." What does that mean?

HARGADON: The more comfortable we are in a particular setting the less we need to think about what we're doing. The problem with being comfortable is that it means we're not challenging the existing norms of whatever group we're in. We're playing our role appropriately and competently. The problem is that it becomes difficult to try new things, think new thoughts, and pull ideas from the outside. By contrast, we tend to be most uncomfortable when we're working in new settings, where we're not quite sure what's the right thing to do or the appropriate way to behave, and we're not sure that we have anything to contribute. Those are the moments when we find out that indeed whatever this new situation is we've seen something in the past that might work. Whatever we come up with chances are it will be different than what's been done before.

UBIQUITY: Do you find much innovation in higher education?

HARGADON: Higher education is sorely lacking in innovation. Part of the reason is that we are rewarded by our research, so there's an enormous incentive to quickly get comfortable teaching, develop a course and not change it. The less energy we put into teaching the more we can put into research. Faculty across the country are being offered wonderful new teaching technologies. Many of them are resisting because it would mean rewriting their notes, changing the content or the way they teach in order to take advantage of the new technology. The system is not structured for us to innovate in teaching very well.

UBIQUITY: You're a Silicon Valley inhabitant. Do you think the level of innovation is still high in Silicon Valley?

HARGADON: It's in a momentary withdrawal, rightfully so, but it's still there. I can't tell you what the next big thing is but I can probably guarantee that whatever it is it's already been done. It's just a matter of bringing it to the masses. Silicon Valley is a wonderful place to be. There's very little desire for tradition in the Silicon Valley. It will always be a hotbed of creativity and innovation. It will never fare well when the time comes for being efficient, when innovation is no longer paid for. When people aren't willing to pay top dollar to upgrade their computers every two years, then computer firms will suffer. But when people becoming willing again to chase the next thing the Silicon Valley will be the right place for it.

UBIQUITY: Let's go to your fourth rule, "Divided we innovate."

HARGADON: "Divided we innovate" comes out of the mistaken belief that if only everybody could talk to everybody else, innovation would flourish. This notion of bringing the organization together into one big, happy family is misguided. That's my main point. It's better to allow people to focus on the things they do well and only bring them together sporadically, if at all. Another alternative is to keep people focused on what they're doing and give other people the charter of finding the commonality. Keeping people divided allows them to go in different directions, which creates the variance you need later to find new combinations. Harvey Earl at GM -- the designer responsible for their success in overtaking Ford during the 1920s and 30s -- broke his design group into five smaller groups and challenged them to each come up with new directions. All of a sudden they had five different directions to choose from instead of one. Now he could take the best from each approach. Working together as one group, it had been much harder for them to develop those differences.

UBIQUITY: Let's skip to the last rule, "Rip, mix and burn." Say something about that.

HARGADON: Much of our innovation process, patent laws and intellectual property assumptions are built around this notion of the Great Man theory of invention -- that you can give ownership of an idea to one person, or one small group of people, and say that nothing like it existed before and nothing like it will be allowed to exist again for another 17 years, or longer in the case of copyright. It's a terrible injustice to the innovation process. The more we move into a digital world and the more easily our work becomes digitized and traceable, the more easily the origins on our influence become traceable. The Beatles borrowed from Elvis and everybody else. When they borrowed, it was OK because they were playing in clubs in Germany and nobody could track their music. When a hip-hop artist samples music off of CDs and puts together a song on his Apple, it becomes possible to say, "Wait a minute, you stole that melody from here and you stole this part from there." The creative process is the same, but now with technologically we can tease out the influences and say, "This riff is owned by somebody else." All of a sudden, on an erroneous assumption, the law is meddling in the creative process.

UBIQUITY: When companies like IBM, Dell and HP want to innovate, should they look mainly at each other or should they look at artists and music companies or some other industry?

HARGADON: They should certainly look at each other. That's the price of admission. You must keep track of what your competition is doing. But if you want to get ahead of them, you need to look elsewhere too. Look to other industries that have faced similar challenges such as increased commodification, decreased innovation, changing directions or merging industries. How are computers becoming more like automobiles or more like consumer electronics? What lessons for marketing, manufacturing, and use can we harvest from these distant (and not so distant) industries? Find where it's happened before and discover the answers in those places.

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