I’ve been thinking about this cartoon a lot over the past week, as my colleague Huggy Rao and I spent last week leading an executive program called Customer-Focused Innovation. I will write a more detailed blog post about the program in the next week or so. This is a joint venture between the Stanford d.school and Graduate School of Business. I wrote a long post about what happened last year, but the basic structure is that the mornings are devoted to case discussions and lecture, where the executives use “clean” academic models to talk about ways to tackle innovation problems; and the afternoons are done in the “messy” d.school style, where they get out and observe an innovation challenge (this year it was redesigning the gas pump experience), brainstorm some solutions, develop some prototype solutions, and then get feedback from executives in the industry about what they like and don’t like about the solutions. The d.school experience was led by Perry Klebhan (who took a week off from his job as CEO of Timbuk2) and Alex Kazaks (who took a week of vacation from his job as a McKinsey consultant).
I first saw this New Yorker cartoon in a book called The Social Psychology of Organizing by Karl Weick, one my heroes who I've blogged about here before. I was thinking of it all week for several reasons.
First, in innovation, the people who precisely quantify – or try to quantify – the risks of any new idea can often come up with excellent reasons why a particular idea is likely to fail, and indeed, since most new ideas have a high failure rate, they are usually right when their logic – whatever numbers they assign – is applied to any particular new idea. BUT the rub is that if your organization never tries anything new because there is always a strong case against any new idea. As an example, look at this week’s Fortune, it shows that none of “green” investments yet backed by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, & Byers (where Al Gore just accepted a job) has been financially successful yet. So the realists are winning a lot of innings lately – but without the idealists, we all lose in the end.
Second, one of the most powerful and persistent findings in the behavioral sciences is the self-fulfilling prophecy: Simply believing that something will happen, and convincing others that it will be so, increases the odds that it will, indeed, come true. Realists often do a fantastic job of convincing others why good ideas will fail; while idealists push on and inspire others to join them against the odds. Now, I am not against realists. We need real evidence and we need to know the risks of what we are doing, but the irony is that the odds of failure may be objectively lower for idealists then realists (and pessimists); so the prophecies of each group may be fulfilled. Moreover, when the odds are against you or your idea, oddly enough, one of the few methods that have been shown to increase the odds of success is convince yourself and others that – if everyone just persists – the odds of success are high. This paradox has always intrigued me and I write about it a lot in Weird Ideas That Work. And does have a very practical, and evidence-based, implication: All other things being equal, you should bet on optimists rather pessimists.
Third and finally, it reminded me of the difference between the “clean” classroom experience in the morning and the “messy” d.school experience in the afternoon. The mornings were taught by master teachers, accustomed to orchestrating lecture and classroom discussion in way that scored runs consistently and predictably in just about every session (after you have taught case 50 times or more, the odds are that you’ve heard most of the questions before, and know how to handle the class). But the d.school experience meant that the teaching team was leading new exercise and that the executives were out of their comfort zones. Walking around gas stations, doing intense teamwork with people they had never met before, building prototypes of gas stations (and throwing away lots of ideas). So, to paraphrase what one executive said to us last year, the runs in “clean” part pile up faster and more consistently with in mornings, but at the end, the d.school experience wins out for many of them because they actually do creative work and have it evaluated by people who might actually use those ideas. Indeed, as a general rule, talking about how to make creativity happen in an organization is a lot less messy and confusing than actually doing creative work.
Of course, both the “clean” and “messy” approaches have strengths. In particular, it is easy to forget the big picture – the firm’s innovation strategy or core cultural elements – when you are talking to a pissed-off customer or trying to build a model of a gas station out of Lego, sliver tape, and foam. So Huggy and I believe that leading innovation requires both.
P.S. Note that I got (i.e., bought) permission from The New Yorker t o use this cartoon on my blog for six months. Please don’t paste into your page without getting permission from them.