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Innovation Is A Human Condition And Shakespeare Described Modern Start-Up Culture.
Jul 27, 2014

My next few blog posts are focused on innovation systems. In this post I want to explore some 400-year-old insight that may change the way you think about innovation. It turns out that innovation is a human condition, but it can suffer greatly from the very efforts we use to codify it.

 

We live in an accelerating world. Breakthroughs in science and technology are occurring so frequently that they arrive already passé. Vast cultural changes are washing through every industry with organizations embracing new agile methods of building products and staying relevant. The traditional rules of business are collapsing with priorities shifting to competing fast versus slow rather than big versus small. These changes are vital and disruptive; the impact of the cloud-era has been unprecedented since the industrial revolution.

 

But knowing all of this doesn't help us navigate the future. As a consequence there are a range of new innovation systems and methodologies that are leading us forward. Well that's the hope. Recently I had an unexpected conversation with a friend who described three different approaches to innovation he had been reading about:

 

  1. Authoritarian - A top down driven approach where ideas are passed from leader to doer.
  2. Meritocracy - An interactive approach that maintains hierarchy but encourages ideas and reflection.
  3. Ardenspace - A creative space, free from rules or expectation where ideas are actualized.

 

An Ardenspace was new to me, but it has become central to my philosophical approach to innovation. It's based on the work of William Shakespeare, the English bard born 450 years ago, and the modern interpretation of Associate Professor Liam Semler in his book 'Teaching Shakespeare and Marlowe: Learning Versus The System'. In Semler's own words, studying Shakespeare is useful as 'Shakespeare unveils learning systems and models positive turbulence for us'. Shakespeare was a master of human behavior; his work provides some universal insights into the human condition that are unchanged in four centuries.

 

The concept of an Ardenspace comes from Shakespeare's play As You Like It. The play occurs in three spaces; the court of authoritarian Duke Frederick (1), the court of collaborative Duke Ferdinand (2) and the Forest of Arden (3). While Semler highlights that all approaches have valid benefits, his central thesis is that educational learning systems (specifically schools and universities) have become so rigid in their approach that they can actually discourage students from exploring new ideas. He is brutal in describing the limitations of systems he has encountered:

 

“Over-systemization deskills its agents, outsources their thinking and artificializes their activities. The system cores itself unwillingly. Its purpose and ends supplant the purposes and ends of the activity it supposedly guarantees. It cleans by bleaching and facilitates by infantilizing. It steals and imprisons terminology such as ‘quality,’ ‘professional,’ ‘efficiency,’ ‘learning,’ ‘teaching,’ and ‘achievement.’”

 

Semler concludes that for many students the education system creates a negative backwash that encourages repetition of safe ideas. Students become unwilling to risk sharing original opinions. This is the result also seen in the two human spaces of As You Like It. In contrast, the Forest of Arden is an exploration space deliberately located outside of the formal spaces and conventional approaches. In the Forests of Arden radical ideas are developed free from existing boundaries. An Ardenspace isn't just a place to share ideas; it is also a space to actualize them. Much of Semler's book is filled with descriptions of the challenges and successes as he undertook to create his own Ardenspaces in teaching the works of Shakespeare and Marlowe. I didn’t know what to expect, but I enjoyed the whole book, (particularly the analysis of Marlowe as both a vampire and Amy Winehouse - you'll have to read the book to understand this bit).

 

So what? Is there any correlation to the world of technology?

 

There's a strong lesson that we can learn in the technology world from these ideas. Ardenspaces are appearing all around us in start-ups, incubators and other creative spaces. These spaces have a consistent counter-culture attitude, defying the established norms, embracing the art of the possible. 

 

But these spaces remain at risk. An innovative small company may grow into a large company where technology debates devolve to simplistic decisions on whether you support or reject emerging ideas; with participants rushed to make judgment without freedom to experiment. And innovation systems and development methodologies such as Agile are harnessed to crunch through work with a ruthless eye on incremental progress. Incrementalism itself is necessary and useful, but we can't overlook the benefits that some positive turbulence and creativity might unlock. Here are four quick examples of teams that have stayed true to their early culture:

 

  • Steve Jobs challenged his Mac development team to think like pirates, moving them deep into the Forest of Arden free from the boundaries of the corporate world. Apple continues to ruthlessly challenge the status-quo, even if it means dismembering technology that they helped pioneer.
  • At Google each employee is (still) encouraged to devote up to 20% of their time in a creative pursuit of their own choosing. 20% time has had a significant impact to Google's financial performance, contributing about a quarter of their total revenue.
  • Astronaut Mark Kelly speaking to Juniper employees earlier in the year shared some insight from NASA. 'None of us is as dumb as all of us' is printed onto the wall of NASA's crisis situation room as a permanent warning against groupthink. Jeff Bezos has many similar and wonderful quotes on innovation and against groupthink.
  • Netflix’s Chaos Monkey is the best example of positive turbulence I can think of. Without rhyme nor reason it sets out strengthen its system by continually breaking random things.

Speaking for my experience at Juniper, I know that this company isn't afraid of exploring new ideas or encouraging employees to find their own space to create new innovations. Often our most transformative ideas have been developed through creative exploration and experimentation with our customers. What was true for William Shakespeare is still true for us today. I find that pretty exciting.

 

Putting it all together, what can we learn?

 

  1. Innovation isn't just a process; it's a space that we need to create away from our day-to-day work
  2. True innovation requires us to 'think different'. Even within innovative teams we still need to be prepared to act in opposition to conventional wisdom. Culture matters, it may even be the most significant barrier to innovation.
  3. Innovations systems often have a pre-determined glide path of progress. In contrast, some positive turbulence as we explore and actualize our ideas can move us toward new 'undiscovered countries'*.

 

(*Apologies to Shakespeare, the final reference is to Star Trek, not to the original quote from Hamlet).