Friday, May 16, 2014

The Science of Innovation

Interesting Podcast with John Sullivan, who had some very interesting points to make about the science of innovation. My distilled takeaways:
  • Employee interaction encourages innovation. Contrast this with telecommuting/working from home, which boosts productivity and creativity.
  • Creativity is idea generation, not innovation. Innovation is ideas implemented in the marketplace. 
  • The methods of boosting productivity are totally different than those that improve innovation. 
  • There’s a science to increasing innovation. Larger technology companies like Google and Apple are refining these all of the time. And this is why Yahoo recently discontinued it's telecommuting policy. 
  • Sullivan paraphrases Larry Page: "if you focus on continuous improvement—or efficiency or productivity, in my terms—if you focus on continuous improvement, you are guaranteed never to be wildly successful because you’ll be so focused on improving by, you know, these small percentages, you’ll never see the big picture."
  • Innovation is what's driving the worth of Google and Apple - and is why Yahoo is pursuing it.
  • Sullivan mentions the science that large tech companies are leveraging to encourage collaboration, saying that maximizing have done around maximizing collaboration and thus innovation - even going so far as to study the effects of cafeteria lines - but i'd love to see the practical side of this. 
The distinction between innovation and productivity is an interesting one, and one that I hadn't pondered before. So Sullivan says that Google believes that innovation comes from three factors:

  1. Rapid learning, or what they call “discovery.” 
  2. Collaboration, which occurs when you bump into people.
  3. Fun, which when you’re having fun and you bump into employees, you learn and discover." (It's why these companies have so many perks.

I get the idea that working closely together with someone could drive innovation. After all, it's collision between diverse experiences that spark new ideas. What I don't see is how this collaboration can drive the implementation of these ideas. In my experience, In my experience, implementing things, requires focus -- heads-down work devoid of interruptions and the random interactions they say innovation requires. They seem like two different things to me. So what's the best way to integrate the two? Do these ideas only apply to software developers?

I'm an educator, working in Agile Scrum. I've been sold on continuous improvement, build up innovation incrementally into something bigger than the sum of it's parts. What Page says above contradicts this approach, and reinforces what I've been realizing recently: that while Scrum works most excellently on a small scale, when you use it on a large scale (like at the Enterprise company where I work), the lack of a big picture can be a huge impediment. I'm also not sure good Scrum is for the ideation portion of large projects, where you need to have a vision and big picture in place before you start. It seems to me that an effective company would be aware of the phase of the project this line of thinking, and adapt their policies accordingly. Something like making sure that all workers are present during planning sessions and other important project phases (reviews, etc.) while being more flexible during the regular work phases.

One last thought. Telecommuting is a godsend for parents. It's a fact of life that schools and doctors aren't configured to accommodate modern life (i.e., two working parents with full-time jobs). Thus, parents like myself need to juggle working with early release days, open houses and teacher conferences, doctor's appointments, early sports practices: the list goes on and on. Without a telecommuting option - I can check and respond to emails while watching soccer practice! - parents would be forced to use sick or vacation time when it wasn't truly necessary. This is the biggest reason why i'll always be a proponent of at least occasional telecommuting, and i'm curious how companies who prioritize innovation would respond to this challenge.

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