Encouraging Innovation, Demystifying Design

This post is based on Jon Kolko’s Fast Company’s design blog post and follows Jon’s previous post on design synthesis here and a post on playfulness here.

Demystifying design could be a good theme of Jon’s posts.  Today he looks at the relation of playfulness to innovation and the work cultural requirements in three points.

Embrace dynamic constraints.

Any design or artistic endeavor needs constraints to focus participant activities within an endless universe of possibilities.  Jon’s point is that the best art accepts constraints and then selectively finds innovation by stepping outside of those constraints.  Hence, accept constraints, but also accept the possibility that constraint may take on a dynamic character.  Encourage a culture of functional flexibility.

Provide a Runway (Space) to Explore Deviant Ideas

Don’t allow decision processes to squash deviant ideas during design processes, even conflictual ideas.

The notion of being playful is to appreciate and encourage divergent thinking and the shifting, flexing, and removing of constraints. Play is about exploring “what-if” scenarios; that is, dream states. Our lives, jobs, and compensation are so frequently tied to rational thought that we have often forgotten how to actively dream, yet these dreams — the ability to generate ideas, outlandish or otherwise — are at the core of design innovation. Design synthesis embraces this divergent dreaming.

Encourage Flow and Autonomous Decision Making

Jon references psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow; an “automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness.”   I diverge with Jon on this point.  I like the idea of flow, but I’m going with Hagel’s  knowledge flows, not Csikszentmihalyi’s version, which I think takes us back toward magical thinking.  I interpret Hagel’s flow as much more than a rational process.  It is a social, emotional and unpredictable process that has some similarities with Jon’s approach.  It fits the idea of playful design spaces, but doesn’t depend specifically on a hard to define altered state of consciousness, which may or may not be available when they are needed.

Some Factors that Support Creativity and Innovation

A couple articles relevant to my 12-6 post, which may also form the beginnings of a partial psychological explanation of Richard Forida’s Spikey World and Creative Class theories.  (Note – Florida’s data is primarily a correlative macro-analysis, however, these theories must also function and be analyzable at a micro level in a way that represents people’s everyday relationships.)

First, the opposite perspective – What will not help Education

Recent news is reporting on America’s falling test scores and the potential dire consequences if improvement is not found.  Now, I really can’t make a judgement without delving deep into the data, but I suspect that the most direct route to improving test scores will be some form of discipline and it will be exactly the opposite of what would help us devise a competitive advantage vis a vis the rest of the world.  Test scores are not the answer.  The answer is innovation for business and economic success.

How to Create Innovation and a 21st Century Economy: Play

I’ll examine 2 articles that make the case for the importance of play and a positive playful attitude for creation and innovation. Furthermore, read below the surface and you will find that this is not just for children.  A playful attitude is important wherever creativity is needed and today that is almost everywhere.

Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving by Benedict Carey

Main point –

. . . people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused . . . positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles.  . . . “It’s imagination, it’s inference, it’s guessing; and much of it is happening subconsciously,” said Marcel Danesi, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and the author of “The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life.”  “It’s all about you, using your own mind, without any method or schema, to restore order from chaos,”. . .

Those whose brains show a particular signature of preparatory activity, one that is strongly correlated with positive moods, turn out to be more likely to solve the puzzles with sudden insight than with trial and error . . . “At this point we have strong circumstantial evidence that this resting state predicts how you solve problems later on,” Dr. Kounios said, “and that it may in fact vary by individual.”

The second article is from Fast Company’s Design Blog; Frog Design: The Four Secrets of Playtime That Foster Creative Kids

There is a myth, common in American culture, that work and play are entirely separate activities. I believe they are more entwined than ever before. As the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once said, “Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” A playful mind thrives on ambiguity, complexity, and improvisation—the very things needed to innovate and come up with creative solutions to the massive global challenges in economics, the environment, education, and more. . . . How then can we get our youngest generation to embrace the role of designer rather than (game) player? Fundamentally, it starts by letting children be the inventors of play.

The article recommends 4 ways to make this happen.

  1. Open Environments – open environments are those in which the child gets to be the author and the medium is open to interpretation.
  2. Flexible Tools – Part of being open is being flexible. Technology has given us a whole new set of tools, though they’re being used in ways not necessarily planned for.
  3. Modifiable Rules – Being open and flexible within parameters is necessary and even helpful, but what happens when the parameters themselves no longer fit our needs?
  4. Superpowers – the physical and mental skills that we develop to adapt and thrive in a complex world while exploring the creative opportunities made possible by global progress.  . . . It’s crucial to understand that we aren’t born with playful minds, we create them.  . . . When 85 percent of today’s companies searching for creative talent can’t find it, will more focus on standardized curriculum, testing, and memorization provide the skills an emergent workforce needs? Not likely. Play is our greatest natural resource. In the end, it comes down to playing with our capacity for human potential. Why would we ever want to limit it? In the future, economies won’t just be driven by financial capital, but by play capital as well.  (Emphasis added)

The Play Ethic

In the Afterword to the book Education in the Creative Economy (Play, the Net, and the Perils of Educating for the Creative Economy) Pat Kane speaks of a new basis for work informed by the play ethic (and a new common sense):

(A)fter the obsolescence of the work ethic . . . (t)he play ethic is an alternative belief-system that asserts that in an age of mass higher education, continuing advances in personal and social autonomy, and ubiquitous digital networks (and their associated devices), there exists a surplus of human potential and energy that will not be satisfied by the old workplace routines of duty and submission.

Kane calls neoteny (the retention of juvenile features in the adult animal) the basis of our biological non-specialization that allows us to respond uniquely to unusual circumstances.

(W)e are not determined by our environment, but make and construct our worlds? This is mirrored by the “permanent precarity of jobs,” where we wander nomadically from one cloud in the nebulous world of labor markets to another.

While this state has the potential to produce anxiety, it also holds the possibility to unleash the “constitutive power of play” that can be productively used, especially if we can wed it to a resilience and supportive infrastructure

We Need Innovation in Creating Thick Value

A Live Science article, Obama: Key to Future Is Innovation by Robert Roy Britt, discusses Obama’s call for innovation through education and controlling health care costs, The problem is that the concepts are a little to vague and unfocussed.  What we need most is innovation in value creation similar to that called for by Umair Haque who writes in the Edge Economy Blog about The Value Every Business Needs to Create Now.  He advocates for thick value.  Thin value is “built on hidden costs, surcharges, and monopoly power”, while thick value is “awesome stuff that makes people meaningfully better off”.  As a country we either need people to shift to thick value or we need to start picking winners and losers with the loser coming from the ranks of the thin group.  If we reduce the cost of health care, it has to come out of someone’s pocket unless that someone starts to create thick value.

Innovator as Manager: The Changing Core of Business Management

My recent reading of business literature and news refers back to the need for innovation and the problems that have developed when good ideas are in short supply.  Consider the following:

Some of our biggest financial firms got away from their original purpose — to fund innovation and to finance the process of “creative destruction,” . . . too many banks got involved in exotic and incomprehensible financial innovations — to simply make money out of money — which ended up as “destructive creation.” Thomas Friedman, NY Times, 4-1-09.

The recent failings of management . . . are most directly attributed to a famine of good ideas. To take one highly visible example, Enron’s management failed to make the earnings and cash flows it had promised and resorted to creating revenues and hiding debt through complex transactions because they didn’t have sufficiently good ideas to make sales and profits in real ways. Off-balance-sheet financial manipulation was the best idea they had . . . (Boland & Collopy, 2004. Design Matters for Management)

Also, consider Action Learning, a process and disposition touted for management practice: The World Institute for Action Learning considers the following components critical for action learning: An urgent significant problem, A diverse action oriented learning team (4-8 people), a process of insightful questioning and reflection, a commitment to individual, team and organizational learning and action, and a coach to helps team members reflect on learning and problems solving.

What is unique about this process is that it focuses on a diverse team that seeks and acts on ideas.  It is a methodology to spur ideas and innovation that are beyond the capabilities of individuals.  Likewise; Case Western University’s Manage by Designing is another management program that considers a disposition toward ideas and innovation paramount for managing.  Learning for innovation seems to be becoming a core capability for managers.