A Sunday Morning Adventure
Greetings. You may think of this blog post as an introduction to a new game. It is not an easy game. But I guarantee you that it offers more adventure than you can imagine. Before you venture out on this adventure, you need to understand that it may have consequences. Some of us will be altered by playing the game in ways that we cannot predict. We may find ourselves in places and in relationships that we can not imagine now. So we need to prepare carefully. Do you accept the challenge?
Ok. First, some quick background from Matt Ridley. It is the history of mankind as we know it. For most of man’s history on this planet, our capacity to collaborate has been limited. Pathetic. Each person needed to master the ability to produce certain key tools on his or her own in order to survive. And the design of these tools changed very little, even over 30,000 generations. It is only in man’s very recent past that we have developed the capacity to trade and specialize (around the time when we shared the planet with neanderthals). Exchange allowed our ideas to have sex and laid the foundation for accelerating innovation. BTW, apparently, the neanderthals did not develop this same capacity. Valuing exchange also lays the foundation for a strategy to take advantage of “comparative advantage”. We need to use that strategy to identify what we are good at so that we can take part successfully in the network of trade and prosper. But while we all benefit from this game, most of us cannot participate in the innovation game. For various reasons, we don’t have the tools to get into and play the game well. And we accept being spectators and outsiders while the insiders have all the fun. Serious bummer!
So my friends, You can see now that our adventure is to get beyond mere survival on this planet and learn how to prosper by getting in on the innovation game. Are you ready? Aha! A question. Yes, son. Go ahead and ask.
But - what is innovation? Using hindsight, innovation is the development of new and more successful ways of doing things. Innovation gives us prosperity by making it easier to complete key survival tasks, freeing up our time. For example, the automobile was an innovation compared to the horse because it didn’t poop all over city streets. So what Ridley is saying is that explosive growth in man’s capacity to innovate is a new and highly valuable thing.
That was a good question. Now let’s start mapping out the adventure!
Here is the problem. The problem is that we tend to measure innovation in terms of things that have already happened. The average person could only see that the car could get rid of horse poop after the car was produced. And as Kathryn Schulz points out, we tend to be overly confident in our beliefs that change is not possible until after it is presented to us as a fact. So what? Well, this means that absent a crisis that shatters our complacency, our brains are not hard wired for participating in making innovation happen. Let’s call this problem the “innovation metrics barrier”. It is a huge problem and just to be clear. Drum roll please, the tool that we need is to get us all get over this problem so that not just a few very, very smart people know how to produce innovation while the rest of us bow down to their genius. In a nutshell, that is our adventure. And if Ridley is right, and we learn how to use this tool well, we will see an acceleration of innovation that we cannot imagine now.
So, is the adventure like a treasure hunt? I mean, we just need to find a tool, right? Well, consider first that if we can find such a tool, we will have the capacity to bring prosperity to any given group. So … it is an important tool, right? It is so important, let’s call it the “magic tool”. But if it is so very important, why don’t we already have the magic tool? If man is so good at trading, why can’t I just trade for it? I am not sure of the answer, but I have a thought. I think that we have been fooled into believing that our current education systems are already sufficient. We foolishly cling to the notion that by mastering a fixed body of knowledge, we are ready to innovate. That we already have the magic tool. (Hint - remember what Kathryn Schultz told us about ourselves?) Why am I confident that this is foolish? Because the knowledge we master focuses on innovations of the past rather than connect us to the process of making innovation in the present. Further, our current teaching methods may need improvement. Ken Robinson, for example, thinks that schools kill creativity (a key aspect of finding solutions to problems). And we tend to think learning is finished after graduation. That we are “educated” when we earn a diploma as opposed to being ready to start learning. Damn!
Now you have enough “intel” to start playing the game!
So what should we do? Before we get into that, remember one thing. You don’t have to play this game. One answer to the question is to do nothing. We all have the freedom to simply walk away from the above thread of thought. Just ignore it and do the best we can with what we have. And BTW, this is what most of us will do. Why? Because we are too preoccupied with surviving in our present situations. But another answer … and it is an exciting answer … is to learn how to build the magic tool.
Ok - You are still here. That means you want to play the game. We can’t buy the magic tool. We need a new strategy to get it. A hint — we can’t steal it.
Could we build the magic tool? We might try to build it ourselves. Ooops. That is what man did for most of his pathetic existence on the planet, and we know from Matt Ridley that this is not as successful a strategy as using exchange between groups — encouraging ideas to have sex. So building the magic tool is about building a particular type of group dynamic (or perhaps ecology). There is an odd confluence of thinking going on here. We can learn how to build the magic tool by using our model of how the tool works. In other words, we need to build a platform for exchanging ideas about how to innovate. If the platform works, it is our magic tool. And people like Steve Johnson are already talking about this type of adventure.
Congrats! You have survived your first stage of the game. We are now ready to address a great “how” question! Put on your helmets please! This gets a bit tricky!
So how does this platform work? Usually, we think that success comes when we focus on what we do. But to build a platform of idea exchange about innovation, we have to do more. First, we have to learn how to deconstruct what we are doing in order to learn how to do the parts better. Dan Coyle has a nice post about this where he analyzes how Olympic athlete Shaun White practices. With questions in hand about doing elements of a task better, we need to discuss those questions with people in other groups who are doing the same thing. To get into idea exchange as an added dimension of the exchange of things themselves. That takes time, effort and skills sets. But if we invest in these, two things happen. First, we develop threads of conversation about innovation where we can learn. Second, we develop relationships that expand the possibilities for trade between groups. Both are critical to building our magic tool.
But how do we can we get beyond the innovation metrics barrier?`This is a good question. Remember — we generally only see innovation after innovation success. We see the genius of the Iphone, for example, only after we start to use it. Our magic tool has to empower us to participate in generating that type of success on a regular basis. To get us into the game before someone else has produced innovation. I’ll be very honest here. If I had the answer to this question, I would be a very, very rich man. I am not and I don’t know for sure. But I do know a few things about the barrier itself. I know that I need to deconstruct the act of innovation into its component parts and understand how these parts can function better. And I know that innovation has at least two parts. The first one is generation of ideas. The second one is using the ideas to make something. We might call the generation of ideas “invention”. We might call the use of invention “investment in innovation”. Both of these things have to happen before we can get innovation success.
But that doesn’t get me beyond the innovation metrics barrier! No it does not. But at least we are now looking at activities that need to happen before we get the result we want. And we get one more bonus here. If invention and investment in applications are two separate tasks, they may be performed better by people who specialize in them in separate groups. Hmmm … that suggests that our magic tool may be more complex than we thought. It has to encourage invention and investment as well as skills building to do these things better in groups. It also has to encourage exchange between inventors and it has to encourage exchange between investors in applications and it has to encourage exchanges between inventors and investors. Damn! That is a lot more complicated than just learning how to deconstruct what we do and talk about it. But if we can manage this, we may start getting more and better inventions and investments. We may be able to accelerate the rate of innovation in any given group. This may be our magic tool.
I see that some of you are a bit confused. You need help. You need an answer to a question that looks like this
Is there an example of this? I have some good news. The answer is “Yes!” Consider the story of PARC. PARC is owned by Xerox. It is famous for inventing many of the components of the PC and then giving them away to Steve Jobs et al, who actually turned these inventions into new products. (Hint — Notice the split between invention and investment in innovation?) Many laugh at this now, using it as a case study of Xerox’s failure to monetize its inventive capacity. But it turns out that PARC has learned from this experience. It now uses a new model that monetizes PARC’s role as an incubator of invention and innovation. The model is called “open innovation”. And even more interesting, PARC is willing to give away that learning to us for free. Here is the link to that incredible story if you want to learn the core ideas of the model.
So where does this leave us? This is not the end of the game. We might think of this instead, as the starting point for a new storyline. That story is as follows. REPORT FROM EARTH: We have found evidence that a magic tool could be built that would change the history of mankind, giving humanity a level of shared prosperity that is unimaginable now. We still do not know how to manufacture, use and share this magic tool. But we do know its value and understand some aspects of its functionality. We have tools that we can use to accelerate our learning about it. We have found a path. Do we dare follow the path? Stay tuned.
Ok, This blog post is not the game itself. That game is all around you. But we had a bit of Sunday fun (I hope) re-imagining who we really are in history. We may be players in a very, very big game. And we have some tools to recognize other game players and to learn how to play the game ourselves. Good luck and let me know if you learn anything out there in that vast world of shared invention and innovation.