Thursday, March 11, 2010

Enterprises - Is too much experience a good thing?

In a recent blog post, Innovation in the Enterprise, my friend Sumeet Moghe raised the question, "Is too much experience a good thing?" He speculates that "...increasing experience in a company eventually stifle[s] innovation".

I agree the observation is valid; established enterprises are generally less innovative, relatively speaking, than start-ups. But is the general experience level of the employees to blame or is it a more complex question of the overall structure and culture of the enterprise?

Inertia, the preference to not change, is a powerful driving force in people. If there are 14 reasons to do something and 1 reason not to do it, it generally won't get done. This is partly explained by a principle that Robert Cialdini talks about in his "Influence" book -- people are conditioned in early childhood to be wary of taking risks. They learn this from burning their hands, hitting their heads on or falling from tables, etc. So later in life, they are afraid to do something new, even if there is no risk involved.

The desire to reduce complexity is another factor that drives people to inertia. Faced with too many choices, or choices where the outcomes are difficult to evaluate, people tend to make no choice and stick with the status quo or default option. (You can read more about this in Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein.)

But there are many examples especially from music and art, that demonstrate that experience can deepen creativity. Consider the later symphonies by Mozart, Beethoven's late period string quartets, or the late works of Picasso, including that iconic sculpture in Chicago. On the other hand, certain studies indicate that some categories of creative thought, science and poetry for example, tend to peak early in life. Why?

A Wall Street Journal article "Fleeting youth, Fading Creativity" takes a look at the field of academic science and, while citing many examples of young scientists who made breakthrough contributions, it also questions whether the structure of that industry discourages creativity in older scientists.

That raises a related question. Does the industry tend toward those structures because older scientists have lost their creativity or does the industry structure drive the creativity out of scientists?

But we are losing focus here. Sumeet's original question was about the nature of the enterprise. What causes an enterprise as a whole, as the sum of its people, to become less innovative over time? Even if the current staff is skewed toward younger people, as a company grows and acquires recognition, it tends to become less innovative.

Another friend would attribute this to the "monkey-butt" theory. As a monkey climbs higher in the tree, its butt gets more exposed and he feels the need to cover it. As a company grows, it establishes layers and divisions of management to handle operations and external relationships. The layers and divisions process ideas up to a board or similar small body of decision-makers. Each layer or division is another monkey in the tree looking to avoid the embarassment of a bad move.

Yet, in the field of applied science (consumer products) there are examples of enterprises that consistently innovated for long periods of their existence, usually driven by one or a few influential leaders who deliberately set up an innovating culture. One of these is 3M which for a long time had a "15 Percent Rule"; an employee was allowed to spend up to 15% of their paid time on independent projects of their own choosing. And another famous example is Xerox Parc.

(Click here for a long video about creativity factors at Xerox Parc.)

But those firms are outliers. Most organizations, it seems to me, reach such a size and position in their market that their primary objective becomes "defend the status quo".

They have passed the start-up phase thanks to their "guaranteed product or process or method for success." Their brand grows and most operational resources get devoted to selling the "guaranteed product or process or method." This compells them to seek out and train employees who are excited to be associated with the "guaranteed product or process or method." A culture evolves that believes in and defends this one sure thing. Innovation loses momentum.

A company can't break out of this dependency on the status quo unless it is willing to set up and fund independent internal ventures as 3M did. In effect, the enterprise must be willing to recognize and fund its own competition from within.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My Bangalore Adventure, part 20: Confined to the Neighborhood

My Bangalore explorations ran into a wall after that weekend in Bannerghatta. the The preliminary outings and introductory classes of ThoughtWorks University (TWU) were over and the students and trainers alike were digging into the hard stuff.

My week days generally ran like this:

7:30-8:00: get to the Royal Orchid (a very nice hotel behind the Diamond District) around 7:30 for breakfast, class setup and the trainers’s morning huddle.
9:00: start class.
4:00-5:00: End class.
5:30-6:00: Get to TW offices in time for after-class student presentations or student one-on-one coaching, or grading homework, or trainer meetings or preparing for the next day’s classes.
9:00 approx.: Eat dinner.
10:00-11:00: finish dinner and go back to work. Or sleep. Or maybe blog.

Even Saturdays and Sundays would have TWU things going on.

I’ve included a little chart of my hours before, during, and after TWU to illustrate. That big dip is a a week of vacation and traveling home before starting my next assignment in Chicago.

Given such a schedule, there was little opportunity for getting out beyond the neighborhood. The only birding was along the drainage canal on the way to the Royal Orchid and I was seeing the same birds over and over. If I needed a little more greenery, there was a pretty good public garden down the road across from New Santhi Sagar. A big sign made me think the park’s name was Puravankara but after seeing that name in several places in Bangalore I figured out it was just the name of a real estate developer. The formal name of that park is Domlur SAARC Park.

Puravankara Park Domlur by M Pries

SAARC stands for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, a body that promotes socio-economic development. The second summit of the SAARC was held in 1986 in Bangalore and was the incentive for building out the golf course that is adjacent to the Diamond District and the Royal Orchid.

You can probably figure out what I'm thinking; Puravankara probably developed and donated that little park down the road as public space in conjunction with various deals going on to showcase the area for the benefit of the golfing elite and visiting dignitaries.

Besides that park, taking a walk now meant “going to get the basics” like shopping for groceries on 100 Foot Road or at Total Mall (where we had gone for McDonald’s). Or hunting down a book at Axis Books on the Inner Ring Road in Domlur. None of these destinations were much more than a mile from my apartment, so “taking a walk” also just meant doing the “same-old, same-old”.

One Sunday I decided to get out and really do something different. We had gone to some very nice restaurants on 80 Foot Road that Rixt, another trainer, knew about. We always went there at night in rickshaws but it seemed fairly close, just a few turns down twisty streets and voila! ... dining and shopping sophistication appeared. I had a small paper map from a hotel tourist magazine and it looked like I could walk there in about 20 minutes.

That little map suggested that 80 Foot Road branched directly off a street that joined Airport Road beside the Leela Palace Hotel. Easy! Let's do it!

My walk started with an ordinary stroll along Airport Road, across the pedestrian bridge, and past the front gate of Leela Palace. I turned the corner onto Kodihalli Main Road, a broad shady street that borders the hotel. This section has some impressive homes across from the hotel and although narrower, reminded me of spots along 100 Foot Road. But after a few blocks, the street shrank and I fell victim to the mapmaker’s imagination, or was that misinformation?

A pretty white mosque with green trim lay ahead near a fork in the road. According to my little map, the right-hand branch was the connection to 80 Ft. Road but to my eyes, it just looked like a crooked dirt alley running between houses. There were no obvious street signs to help me out. So I stayed to my left, on the side of the fork that went past the mosque. As I passed, it blasted my ears with a loud broadcast call to prayer.

It was like a foghorn marking a ship’s passage into unknown waters. I had been sure I was headed for the trendy part of 80 Foot Road but soon it would seem I was on course, quickly, for some other place.... (to be continued)