This article is the third video excerpt from my interview with the Business 901 podcast and Joe Dager. In this segment, we cover key issues related to organizational learning and innovation. Ideally, organizational learning and innovation are complementary activities, each adding to the overall process of improvement. The ultimate purpose of learning is to inform innovation and improvement, and scientific methods can be combined with creativity to enhance both processes. Here are some additional thoughts and comments on the key points in the video.
The scientific method is at the core of almost all the effective learning models that I know of, and then when you couple that [scientific methods] with other creative type processes like design thinking and systems thinking, they often can form a very complementary combination.
The scientific method is the core of many organization improvement processes, including Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA); Six Sigma; Lean, so on, and so forth. Much of our thinking and application of the scientific method to work processes have been based on a physical sciences perspective that is often deductive and experimental.
I think scientific thinking so often we have thought about it from the natural science experimentation perspective, which has a very deductive look and feel to it. You come up with a hypothesis, you test it, and you find out how the world works.
While this process is very useful and doesn’t force us to be deductive, we often do not emphasize or focus on the creative side of developing a new “hypothesis.”
We often forget to emphasize how you come up with the hypothesis. How do you create that new solution that we think is going to work well? That’s where I think some of the other concepts and tools, and techniques from design thinking and systems thinking can be infused and used to come up with better designs.
One challenge organization architects face is the nature of work in organizations varies widely, from working with physical things on the manufacturing floor to working with information and custom solutions.
Nature of Organizations
In fact, the mix of work has shifted from a majority of work with physical processes to more and more work involving information and digital processes. Organizations, regardless of the type of work, are human-created.
I think one of the big issues that we face with organizations is they really aren’t the “natural” world.
While we study human behavior using scientific methods, in the social sciences, we seldom if ever develop “laws” that are generalizable to all individuals and contexts. The main reason that scientific laws elude social scientists is people are complex, seem to come in infinite variety, can change their thinking and behavior (they are not static), and when we combine them into groups, the permutations are infinite.
So… the organization’s as we define them today…we created these organizations; we designed them. So when we’re applying scientific methods to that, we’re applying it to something that doesn’t exist in nature it’s something we created. So we’re evaluating and gaining insights into our own creations and how humans react to those creations.
The best we have been able to do is to produce insights about specific humans in specific contexts or situations. But that is very useful to help us create even better organizational designs.
We apply the scientific method to gain insights into the organization so that we can recreate it, we can reimagine, and we say this isn’t working exactly like we thought it should work.
Once we use the insights to [re]design the organization or some part of the organization, we can test it to see the results of those changes. How do humans react? However, testing and validating a design in one context doesn’t mean that we will get similar results in another context.
Copying vs. Creatively Adapting
Creativity is often inspired by other works. One of my favorite architects, Norman Foster, noted, “Everything Inspires Me, Sometimes I Think I See Things Others Don’t.” Studying other organization designs is an important input to the creative process, but don’t get caught in the “copycat” trap.
We can learn from others, we can be inspired by others, but if we don’t creatively adapt that and create our own custom solutions, at best we’re going to be followers to our competitors; at worst, we are going to implement things that simply aren’t gonna work in our organization, and the examples of that are our legion.
Copying can be useful in some circumstances, but at best, it limits the improvement, and at worst, it fails and makes things worse.
We’ve got lots of examples where people copied stuff from one cultural context, put it in another company culture context, and it failed miserably. They blamed the tool when in fact, it was the people implementing that tool…without creatively adapting it that was the problem.
While copying might seem a safer approach, it is actually dangerous.
Taking Risks & Innovation
If you want to surpass the competition, you are going to have to take some risks.
If you want to lead, and you want to create something new, then you’ve got to take some risks and break some molds and come up with some different solutions and test them.
Unfortunately, most organizations are designed to avoid risks.
I think one of the biggest issues we face in our companies today is that we really don’t want to take risks. We say we want innovation, but yet we’ve got an entire system set up to where you have to have predictable results before anybody will spend any time or money on it.
Many of our organizations are designed to be predictable. However, predictability is at odds with innovation.
Well, if you’ve got predictable results, I would contend that you’re not doing anything innovative. If we can predict the results, we already know the answer; it’s not new. So the only time you’re doing innovation is when you are doing things that you really don’t know, you may have an educated guess, but you really don’t know what the result is going to be or how successful it’s going to be.
Scientific methods, systems thinking, and design thinking is a powerful combination for the organization architect. Don’t be afraid to take a few risks.