June 17, 2016 JV

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

What is this fixation with the new?  Whatever happened to “tried and true?”  How many babies will be thrown out because of tepid bath-water?

Have you ever facilitated a meeting and to encourage creative thought, asked people to brainstorm from scratch?  Or lightbulb_ooidesign_clip_art_20086have you been part of an innovation workshop and stared and stared at a blank sheet of paper?  I’ve facilitated a few workshops and meetings in my lifetime; I’m guessing somewhere between 500 and 1,000.  When trying to encourage unconstrained thinking, I often came up against comments like: “hey, we brainstormed this a few years ago and came up with a really good list of results.  Why don’t we start from that?”  Or, “could we begin with the table of contents in [such and such] text-book.”  We might call these folks lazy, but I think they are great questions.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for divergent thinking, undoubtedly and improvements must be made to prior thought in the light of new evidence.  However, I’d like to make a case for valuing what’s gone before us and being very careful about what we reject as being “old hat.”

You may have never heard of Genrich Altshuller, but I’m sure you’ve washed your hands using a water mixer.  Altshuller was a former patents officer in the Soviet Navy and became the father of TRIZ (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving).  The mixer was one of many inventions resulting from the use of TRIZ.  During his time in the Navy, Altshuller reviewed about 40,000 patent abstracts.  Now, you’d think Water Mixerthat when people go to the trouble of making a patent application, what they are describing is actually a new invention.  Right?  Well, Genrich actually found that the vast majority (~ 99%) of “inventions” were actually redeployments of existing knowledge in different forms and contexts.  He found (and I agree) that most of us believe we’ve found something new, when in reality, we just don’t know what we don’t know.  Lesson 1: a little bit of humility goes a long way in business and life!

I believe that a well-defined framework, bequeathed to us by the many, often over many years of development, is a useful place for commencing action.  Counter-intuitively, this also includes creative endeavours!  I’d like to mention just a couple of examples that I’ve worked with over the past few years.  There’s the Brazilian Business Excellence Framework (PNQ) for whole of business considerations and the GFMAM Asset Management Landscape, obviously for an Asset Management focus.  As human endeavours go, they are imperfect, but nevertheless, very useful bodies of work.  At first blush, frameworks may appear misshapen, as in a side-show mirror.  We wonder: “why would you put that there?” and if we don’t persist, we’ll never know why.  However, with time, we begin to see more clearly, discovering the ignorance of our assumptions and pre-suppositions.  Lesson 1 revisited!

Like the well-proportioned trunk and branches of a tree, frameworks provide us with sufficient structure for the fruit to be well supported, yet have enough room for it to grow unencumbered.  Have you ever driven past an orchard and Orchardseen the rows of heavily pruned trees?  The farmers know what they are doing.  And on a realistic note, if you have an apple tree, don’t hope for bananas.

So we come to see that for good results, there needs to be a balance of structure and freedom, an imposed set of barriers and limits within which we can freely choose to be creative.  There’s that coalescence of contrarieties again.  It’s found in the most interesting of places.

Another thing I’ve come to understand is that innovation and improvement / standardisation are really two sides of the same coin.  Prior knowledge is so often a pre-requisite to great innovation.  I plan to dedicate a future blog to one of my favourite stories that demonstrates this beautifully; one that had arguably the greatest impact on the world over the past 500 years – the invention of the printing press.

I believe that an established truth, whatever form it comes in – model, pattern, framework or creed – should be our starting point.  In fact, I believe that the best, most consistent creative results come from established patterns; from ordered design, not dumb luck.  So let’s not be too hasty in replacing the past with future knowledge.  After all, it’s often only in retrospect that we see clearly enough to judge the efficacy of new thought.

In a previous article I shared my thoughts on the dominant view in business.  I believe that the view proposed in the current blog aligns best with the “living being” model of business.  I’m arguing for the need for a small set of established truths that are shared and within which everyone can operate and cooperate.  Many may argue against me (disruptive technologies, buggy whips and such).  However, there will always be remnant of believers.  Despite the advance of the machines, their disruptors and prison ships, there are signs of life everywhere I look and work.  Where is JC?  While he is alive, there is always hope.

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