Sunday, May 25, 2008

Remarks on The Art of Innovation

Tom Kelley's The Art of Innovation was published in 2001, and I'll bet anyone with a serious interest in design and innovation has read it, so this recommendation won't count for a lot, but I really loved this book. Instead of a cookbook on how to "do innovation," it deals with organizational culture, and what it takes to create and sustain an innovative company. Kelley is general manager of the design shop IDEO, headquartered in Palo Alto.

Every chapter is a delight. If you work (or have worked) for a company that is stumbling down the path to innovation you'll immediately connect with Kelley's stories and observations on company culture. Look at these organizational "Barriers" to innovation in Ch. 9, "Barrier Jumping:"

  • "Hierarchy-Based. Innovation and structure are like oil and water. Forcing ideas to start at the top or rigidly follow a vertical path through an organization tends to weigh down new projects...
  • Anonymous. There are companies where nobody seems to notice or care. Places where you can cruise slowly up a predictable career path...
  • Experts. Expertise is great until it begins to shut you off from new learning. Many self-described more than they listen. Experts can inadvertently block innovation by saying, "It's never been done that way.""

I worked at a large company where some managers were interested in "innovation," and designated a few individuals as innovation experts, with predictable results. Had these managers read Kelley's they might have understood that successful innovation depends on breaking down organizational barriers and changing their own behavior. Or not, since the people who benefit the most from hierarchy and structure are usually the last ones to acknowledge its existence.

The part of the book that was a complete surprise to me was the chapter on the effects of space on innovation. Kelley's company IDEO has spent a good deal of effort designing their own workspace in order to encourage their own design activities. I recognized Kelley's descriptions of workspaces that stifle innovation, but had never considered how powerful the workspace is on the functioning of individuals and groups. I had to read the chapter more than once to understand the lessons. I visited IDEO's offices in Palo Alto two years ago and was really impressed with the layout. I realize now how much deliberate activity went into the design of the place.

I've blogged on another of Kelley's excellent books, The Ten Faces of Innovation. It's a great read, too.

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