Whom The Cap Fits Let Them Wear It

During the dot-com boom in Silicon Valley, a hiring manager of a hot high-tech startup company led a hot-shot software engineer, poached recently from a competitor, to his small, shared cubicle.

“Is this where I work?” said the programmer.

“Yes, everybody here works in a shared cubicle.”

“Well, I am not everybody,” snarled the programmer.

Software engineers, like novelists, have enormous egos. Just as novelists are committed to producing perfect prose, so are software programmers devoted to crafting concise code. Some programers (and novelists) are unassailable—or at least they like to think so. The younger ones tend to be more flexible, immensely creative and productive; the seasoned ones are less flexible but open to good arguments. Yet their confidence is infectious, their energy rigorous, their focus enviable.

Listen, Learn, and Leverage

Over the years, I have had the good fortune to work (and mentor) a few programmers. The biggest challenges are learning how to manage a mixed lot of intense and brilliant minds, how to collaborate their creative design ideas, how to examine alternative solutions, and how to elect and justify the best solution that will address the problem. Those are not easy questions to answer. Nor a cookbook recipe exists to address them. But there are few noteworthy nuggets and insightful ingredients to keep in mind.

My noteworthy advice is that no idea is ever tossed out just because it’s unworthy. In other words, you must examine all ideas, scrutinize them, and explore their shortcomings—not critically but constructively. Donald A. Norman suggests in The Design of Everyday Things that one must explore every design idea presented and not disregard or discard an idea unless you can offer a better one.

Collaboration of Best Ideas

This exploration of the best idea is the first ingredient in managing innovation from a pool of design ideas. Steven Johnson, in his talk Where Good Ideas Come From, explains that most good ideas evolve over time. The best ones emerge from collaboration with other ideas. Steve Jobs said that we examine over dozen ideas during our design sessions, and may be five may emerge, after careful exploration, as potential candidates. From those five, the best one—or a collaboration of two—emerges as a winner.

So if you are the head of a software design team, explore the ideas openly and discuss constructively. For in the end, the best innovative idea will emerge, advocate Johnson and Jobs.

The second ingredient in managing innovation of good ideas is an architect who probes and provokes, who cultivates and culminates, this discussion, a task no different than a moderator who mediates a complex and controversial political debate or manages a panel of egotistical experts with ease and skill. With certitude and confidence, a good architect can conduct these design review sessions.

And the last proven ingredient is your ability to listen and learn from someone less experienced, your ability to extract and explore the essence of an idea, and your ability to articulate and argue why an idea, after exploring all the alternatives, is an ideal candidate. Here is where your insight, your judgement, your experience, your wit and wisdom come together to pluck the right choice.

Collaboration and Crowdsourcing

An exploratory approach to pick the best innovative idea among many is not unique to software design. It’s common in political campaigns; message development; product development, design and strategy; employment candidacy; architecture; and policy decision. In fact, crowdsourcing for good ideas is not uncommon among corporations. For example, in March 2008, Starbucks introduced the MyStarbucksIdea, where they allowed people to submit ideas to shape its future products. Upon launch and within the first year, people submitted 70,000 ideas. Starbucks implemented 94 ideas, and launched 25 products.

In the end, among many distinct heads and many disparate caps, the right cap will always fit the right head.

By Jules S. Damji

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Whom The Cap Fits Let Them Wear It

  1. Susan Allen

    Dear Jules: You’ve made a really good case for creativity in comm practice. And how to use crowdsourcing and a discussion architect. A lot of employees complain that their orgs resist change and don’t welcome creative ideas. Any ideas on how we can encourage change and creativity where we work?

    • Thank you Susan. A good question, indeed. The cultural change has to emerge from bottom-up (of course it helps if the C-staff decreed that as well from top-down). In the tech sector, ideas for innovation are the capital investment and intellectual property. They have to fostered and engendered and blossomed.

      One way is to have employee informal brown-bag lunches, where employees present and brainstorm ideas.
      Another is where middle-management encourages monthly idea hackathons, where employees get together in groups and explore together ideas in a collaborative form, an equivalent of in-house crowd sourcing if you will. Yet another is encourage employees to dedicate some portion of their work to toward a passion they feel could make a difference. Google does that religiously with each employee who works 10-15% of his work time dedicated to an innovative idea. In fact, several key products that we use today had their incubation in this scheme.

      And finally, make it a mission value, without shame, that failure is not vice, but a virtue, as long as you don’t make a habit of it, but instead learn from it.

      In today’s collaborative, disruptive, and interactive Internet of Things, resistance is futile. Employees’ innovative ideas rule. Management should listen, learn, and leverage this immense well-spring of ideas.

      Jules Damji

  2. An insightful report in the Economist about Ideas, Innovation, Incubation, and Investment. Related to Susan’s questions—how corporations can harness and encourage innovation—but on a grander and global scale. Accelerators have become a global enterprise to harvest and harness the power of social and innovative entrepreneurship.
    Good reads:
    http://econ.st/1diyWCm
    ]http://econ.st/1dUewgp

    Jules Damji

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