The Fusion of Ideas: Welding Imagination to Experience

The Fusion of Ideas

In a recent HBR blog, Bronwyn Fryer, a contributing editor to , put out a call for what she called “idea fusers”. She pointed out that great inventions are often the result of the fusion of ideas from very different domains. Steve Jobs said that he fused calligraphy with technology to produce Apple’s elegant fonts. Rent the Runway is the mash-up of high-end fashion and a Netflix-style rental scheme. She wondered why more firms didn’t hire the kind of people who could do this in-house, rather than farming out the work to firms like IDEO. She was concerned that society has placed too much value on specialists, people with deep knowledge in particular areas, who then “put fences around their fields of expertise”. She lamented the decline in humanities education and the liberal arts and with that the passing of the generalist, who can think broadly across a variety of different fields. She wondered whether firms should consider hiring people from more diverse backgrounds, both social and intellectual…

What follows are my comments on Bronwyn Fryer’s post:

“This is excellent advice but I think that there are serious cultural and institutional barriers to its implementation. Although many corporations espouse innovation and creativity, Anglo-Saxon capitalism in practice is still dominated by a model of management that is based on concepts of maximization, equilibrium and rationality drawn from neoclassical economics. From this perspective innovation is “exogenous” – assumed to come from outside the system. This model worked fine while the preoccupation of Western corporations was “more of the same” growth (roughly the first 75 years of the 20th Century). In the guise of the shareholder value model, it came into its own as a recipe for the “rationalization” of aging, inefficient and globally uncompetitive businesses in the last quarter of that century (making Mitt Romney, among others, very rich). But it is totally inadequate as a model for pursuing “endogenous” innovation – creativity on the inside.

Innovation in organizations requires “slack resources”, like 3M’s and Google’s policies of allowing their people to spend a certain percentage of their time on projects of their own choice. It requires people who are intrinsically motivated, who want to “change the world” and may not care much about money. It requires communities of trust and contexts that support them. It calls for  “hunting dynamics” – small, egalitarian teams, face-to-face communication and so-called “fission-fusion” pulses as teams scatter to explore and gather to exploit opportunities.

The people need to be horizontal thinkers, but they also need to be vertical thinkers. IDEO prizes what they call “T-shaped” thinkers; thinkers that have bone-deep know-how in a particular area and yet have broad, know-what in many areas. T-shape thinkers embody the contradictions between repetition and innovation, discipline and freedom within themselves. It is this ambidextrous ability to handle paradox that allows them to thrive in a would-be ambidextrous organization. Those who are pure “vertical” thinkers are unlikely to get along with others who are purely “horizontal”. For cooperation and collaboration each must carry the seeds of the other within them. Fortunately we all seem to be capable of both, provided the organizational context is supportive.

It is difficult to imagine how this kind of support could be forthcoming in large, established organizations, with their power hierarchies and “herding dynamics”, dedicated to the maximization of shareholder value. Indeed the contexts required are so antithetical to those present in many large organizations that it’s not surprising that they outsource these activities to outfits like IDEO and Jump Associates. In their view at least it keeps the “crazies” in the asylum.

We need to revisit the conceptual foundations of the corporation For several years now I have been working on a fusion of management concepts with those from ecology, breaking from the bondage of neoclassical economics. Ecology or “ecologics”, as I prefer to call it, is the field of “both/and”, rather than “either/or”. It combines exchange and reciprocity, competition and cooperation, hierarchies and networks, economy and community, art and science, possibility and probability. Name just about any management paradox or apparent contradiction and you can find an ecosystem that embraces both poles successfully. The objective of such organizations is sustainability, not maximization, and they operate in a world of constant change that never approaches equilibrium. They are naturally ambidextrous.

An ecological perspective accepts our human nature as it is; an ancient selfishness, overlaid with a thick layer of cooperation and finished with a thin, shiny veneer of reason. We are rational, but it is a deep, ecological rationality, not the rationality of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, favored by neoclassical economics. We can “think” in as many ways as we experience the world and have a huge capacity to express one kind of experience in terms of another. This is the associative capacity that allows us to mash together ideas from different domains to create novel integrations – “beautiful thirds”. All we need to do is to build structures and processes that supply the contexts and the dynamics to support it. Firms like 3M show that it can be done, but it became that way of necessity early in its life. It’s much harder to start in well-established organizations and even more difficult to sustain when the efforts pay off and the organization achieves success and power.”

Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that “The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest for life…imagination is not to be divorced from the facts, it is a way of illuminating the facts…The task of the university is to weld together imagination and experience.” Amen to that.

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