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Insights, intuitions and epiphanies: some reflections on innovation and creativity

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Introduction

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word innovation as:

Innovation (n):  a new idea, method or device.

This definition leaves the door wide open as to what the term means: an innovation could be a novel product to blow the competition away to a new way to organise paperwork that makes it easier to find the hardcopy of the contract you’re after.

Organisations hunt high and low for the magic formula that would enable them to foster and manage innovation. So management gurus, consultants and academics oblige by waxing at length on the best way to inspire and direct innovation (there has to be a process for it, right?). And there’s the paradox:  the more we chase it, the further it seems to recede. But that does not stop organisations from chasing the mirage. In this post I present a few reflections on creativity and innovation based on a couple of personal experiences.

The first story

In the early 90s I started working towards a research degree in chemical engineering at   University of Queensland. Given my theoretical leanings, I naturally gravitated towards the mathematically-oriented field of  fluid dynamics. I’d spoken to a couple of folks working in the area, and finally decided to work with Tony Howes, not only because I found his work interesting, but also thought that his quick intelligence and easygoing manner would make for a good work environment.

I spent a few weeks – or was it months – trying to define a decent research problem, but got nowhere. Tony, sensing that it was time to nudge me towards a decision, suggested a couple of problems relating to a phenomenon that is easily demonstrated in a kitchen sink. If you’re game you may want to make your way to the nearest sink and try the following:

Turn the tap on slowly until water starts to flow out as a cylindrical jet. You will notice that the jet breaks up into near spherical droplets a short distance from the mouth of the tap.

This phenomenon is called jet breakup. Instead of describing it further, I’ll follow the advice that a picture is worth several words (see figure 1).

Photo of jet breakup

Figure 1: A water jet breaking up

If you are interested in knowing why fluid jets tend to break up into drops,  please see the next paragraph; if not, feels free to skip the bracketed section as it is not essential to the story.

[Boring details: The basic cause of break up is surface tension – which is essentially a force that keeps a fluid from becoming a gas. Surface tension arises from the unbalanced “pull” that molecules in the interior of a fluid exert on molecules on the surface. The imbalance occurs because molecules at the surface “feel” a pull only from the interior of the fluid. In contrast, molecules in the interior of the fluid are subjected to the same force on all sides as they are surrounded by fluid. One of the effects of surface tension is that fluid bodies tend to minimise their surface area. The upshot of this for cylindrically shaped jets (such as those emerging from a tap) is that they tend to pinch off into a series of drops because the combined surface area of the drops is less than that of the cylinder.]

To get back to my story:  I realised that I’d already burnt up a few months of a research grant so I agreed to work on one of the problems Tony suggested. Once I’d signed up to it, I hit the books and research journals getting up to speed with the problem. I learnt a lot. Among other things, I learnt that the problem of jet breakup was first studied by Lord Rayleigh in 1878! I also learnt that since the late 1960s, the phenomenon of jet break had enjoyed a bit of a renaissance due to applications such as inkjet printing. Tony had proposed a problem of interest to the metals industry – the production of shot from jets of molten metal. However, it seemed to me that this problem was at best a minor variation on a theme that had already been done to death.

Anyway, regardless of how I felt about it, I was being paid to do research, so I plugged away at it. In the process I developed a good sense for the physics behind the phenomenon, its applications and what had been done up until then. Although I wasn’t too fired up about it, I’d also started work on modelling the molten metal shot problem. It was progress of sorts, but of the dull, desultory kind.

Then one evening in October or November 1994, I had one of those magical Aha moments. …

I was washing up after dinner when I noticed a curious wave-like structure on the thin jet that emerged from the kitchen sink tap and fell onto a plate an inch or two below the tap (the dishes had piled up a while). The wave pattern was absolutely stationary and rather striking. Rather than attempt to describe it any further, I’ll just show you a a  photograph of the phenomenon taken by my colleague Anh Vu.

Photograph of stationary waves on a water jet

Figure 2: Stationary waves on a water jet.

The phenomenon is one that countless folks have noticed, and even I’d seen it before but never paid it much attention. Having been immersed in the theory of fluid jets for so long, I realised at once that the pattern had the same underlying cause as jet breakup. I wondered if any one had published any papers on it. Google Scholar and decent search engines weren’t available so I rushed off to the library find out.  A few hours of searching catalogues and references confirmed that I’d stumbled on to something that could see me through my degree and perhaps even give me a couple of papers.

The next day, I told Tony about it. He was just as excited about it as I was and was more than happy for me to switch topics. I worked feverishly on the problem and within a few months had a theory that related the wavelength of the waves to jet velocity and properties of the fluid.  The work was not a major innovation, but it was novel enough to get me my degree and a couple of papers.

This episode taught me a few things about innovation and creativity, which I list below:

  1. Interesting opportunities lurk in unexpected places: A kitchen sink – who would have thought….
  2. …but it takes work and training to recognise opportunities for what they are: If I hadn’t the background in the physics of fluid jets, I wouldn’t have seen the stationary waves for what they were.
  3. A sense progress is important, even when things aren’t going well: Tony left me to my own devices initially, but then nudged me towards a productive direction when he saw I was going nowhere. This had the effect of giving me a sense of progress towards a goal (my degree), which kept my spirits up through a hard time.
  4. It is best to work on things that interest you, not those that interest others: I stuck to my primary interest (mathematical modelling) rather than do something that was not of much interest but may have been a better career choice.

 The second story

Here’s another story, from a few years later when I was working as an applied mathematician within a polymer processing laboratory.

Some background first – polymer extrusion is an industrial process that is used to create plastic tubing from raw polymer pellets. It involves melting the raw material and driving the melt through a die with the required cross-sectional profile. A common problem encountered in this process is that at high flow rates, the melt emerging from the die has shark skin-like surface imperfections. This phenomenon is sometimes called the melt flow instability.

I was hired to work on a project to model the melt flow instability described above. I began, as researchers always do, by wading through a stack of research papers on the topic. Again this was a topic that had been over-researched in that many different groups had tried many different approaches. However none of them had answered the question definitively. I learnt a lot about modelling polymer flows (quite different from modelling flows of water-like fluids described in the earlier story) but didn’t make any progress on the problem.

Most of the other members in the research group were doing experimental projects, working in the lab doing stuff with real polymers, whilst I was engaged in modelling imaginary ones using simulations. Oddly enough, the folks engaged in the two strands of research did not meet much; I didn’t have much to do with them, and was happy working on my own little projects.

One day, after I’d been in the lab for a year or so, one of the experimentalists knocked on my door to have a chat regarding a problem he was having with a mathematical model he had developed. The reading and background work I had done up to that point enabled me to solve his problem rather quickly. Progress at last – but not in the way I’d imagined.

Encouraged by this, I started talking to others in the group and soon found that they had modelling problems that I could help with. I published a few papers through such collaborations and kept my academic score ticking along. More importantly, though, I got  – for the first time –  a taste  of collaborative work, and  I found that I really enjoyed it. One of the papers that we wrote rated a minor award, which would have helped my academic career had I stayed in the field. However, later that year I decided to switch careers and move to consulting. But that’s another story…

My stint in the polymer lab, very different from my solo research experience, taught me a few more things about creativity and innovation. These are:

  1. Collaboration between diversely skilled individuals enhances creativity. It is important to interact with others, particularly professionals from other disciplines. I’m grateful to my colleagues from the lab  for drawing me out of my “comfort zone” of theoretical work.
  2. Being part of a larger effort does not preclude creativity and innovation – although I did not do any experiments, I was able to develop models that explained some of the phenomena that my colleagues found.
  3. Even modest contributions add value to the end product – great insights and epiphanies aren’t necessary – none of the modelling work that I did was particularly profound or new. It was all fairly routine stuff, done using existing methods and algorithms. Yet, my contributions to the research added a piece that was essential for completeness.

 Reflections and wrap-up

The events related above occurred in a research environment, but the lessons I took away have, I believe, a much wider applicability. Further, although the two stories are quite different – and hold different lessons – there are a few  common themes that run through them. These are:

  1. When doing creative work, one invariably ends up with results that one didn’t intend or expect to find.
  2. A shift in perspective may help in generating new ideas. Looking at things from someone else’s point of view might be just the spark you need.
  3. Things rarely go according to plan, but it is important to keep ones spirits up.
  4. Background is important; it is critical to learn/read as much as possible about the problem you’re attempting to solve.

The above conclusions hold a warning for those who night over-plan and control innovative or creative activities. In both cases I started out by defining what I intended to solve, but ended up solving something else. By the yardstick of a project plan, I failed. But by a more flexible measure, I did alright. By definition, the process of discovery is unpredictable and somewhat opportunistic – one has to be willing and able to redefine goals as one proceed, and at times even throw everything away and start from scratch.

Afterword

I wrote this piece in 2009, intending to post it on Eight to Late. Around that time Paul Culmsee and I were just starting out on our book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices. I was pretty sure this piece would find a place in the book so I held off from blogging it. As it turned out, a modified version ended up in Chapter 4:  Managing Innovation: The Demise of Command and Control.

Written by K

May 17, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Posted in Management

Tagged with ,

The king’s son – a project management fable

with 22 comments

Once upon a time there was a king who was much loved by his people. The people loved him because he did many Good Things: he built roads for those who needed to travel long distances, houses for those who lacked a place to live and even initiated software projects to keep geeks in gainful employment.

All the Good Things the king did needed money and although the king was rich, his resources were not unlimited.  Naturally, the king’s treasurer wanted to ensure that the funds flowing out of the state coffers were being put to good use.

One day, at a council meeting the treasurer summoned up his courage and asked the king, “Your highness, I know your intentions are good, but how do we know that all the money we spend is being used properly?”

“It must be so because the people are happy,” replied the king.

“Yes they are happy and that is good,” said the treasurer, “but how do we know that money we spend is not being wasted?  Is it not possible that we could save money by coordinating, planning and monitoring the Good Things we do in an organized manner?”

The king (who was known to think from time to time) mulled over this for a few days.

After much mulling, he summoned his treasurer and said, “You are right. We should be more organized in the way we do all the Good Things we do. This task is so important that I will ask my second son to oversee the Good Things we do. He is, after all, a Prince Too.”

The second son (who was a Prince Too) took to his new role with relish. His first act was to set up a Governance Committee to oversee and direct all the Good Things that were being done. He ordered the board to come up with a process that would ensure that the Good Things being done would be done in an efficient and transparent way.  His second act was to publish a decree, declaring that all those who did not follow the process would be summarily terminated.

Many expensive consultants and long meetings later, the Governance Committee announced they had a methodology (they could coin a word or two…) which, if followed to the letter, would ensure that all the Good Things being done were done efficiently, in a way  to ensure value for the state. They had the assurance of those expensive consultants that the methodology was tested and proven so they believed this would happen as a matter of course. Moreover,  the rates that the consultants charged convinced the Governance Committee that this must indeed be so.

In keeping with penchant of committees to name things, they gave the methodology the name of the king’s son (who, as we have seen earlier, was a Prince Too).

And so it came to pass that all the Good Things being done followed a process.  Those who managed the Good Things and those who actually did them, underwent rigorous training in the foundations and practice of the methodology (which meant more revenue for the consultants). The planners and the doers then went out and applied the methodology in their work.

And for a while, everyone was happy: the king, the treasurer, the Governance Committee ….and of course, the Prince Too.

After sometime, however, the treasurer noticed that the flow of money out of his coffers and into the Good Things had not lessened – on the contrary, it seemed to have increased. This alarmed him, so  he requested a meeting with the king’s son to discuss the matter. The king’s son, on hearing the treasurer’s tale, was alarmed too (his father would not be happy if he heard that methodology had made the matter worse…).

The king’s son summoned the Governance Committee and demanded an Explanation Now! Yes, this was how he said it, he was very, very angry.

The Governance Committee were at a loss to explain the paradox. They were using a tested and proven methodology (as the expensive consultants assured them), yet their cost of all the Good Things they were doing was rising. “What gives?” they wondered. Try as they did, they could not find an answer. After much cogitation they called in the expensive consultants and demanded an explanation.

The consultants said that the methodology was Tested and Proven. It was simply not possible that it wasn’t working.  To diagnose the problem they recommended a month long audit of all the Good Things that had been done since the methodology was imposed.

The Governance Committee agreed; they had little choice (unless they preferred summary termination, which they didn’t).

The audit thus proceeded.

A month later the consultant reported  back to the Governance Committee.  “We know what the problem is,” they said. “Those who do Good Things aren’t following the methodology to the letter.  You must understand that the benefits of the methodology will be realised only if it is implemented properly. We recommend that everyone undergoes refresher training in the methodology so that they understand it properly .”

The Governance Committee went to the treasurer, explained the situation and requested that funds be granted for refresher courses.

On hearing this, the treasurer was livid. “What? We have to spend more money to fix this problem? You must be joking.”  He was very angry but he could see no other way;  the consultants were the only ones who could see them out of this mess.

The money was sanctioned and the training conducted. More Good Things were done but, unfortunately, the costs did not settle down.  Things, in fact, got so bad that the treasurer went directly to the king and mentioned the problem.

The king said, “Summon my second son,” he said imperiously, “I must have Words with him.”

The second son (who was a Prince Too) was summoned and arrived post-haste. His retainers had warned him that the king was very very angry.

“Father, you requested my presence?” He asked, a tad tremulously.

“Damn right, I requested your presence. I asked you to ensure that my money is being well spent on creating Good Things, and now I find that you are spending even more than we did before I put you in charge. I demand an explanation,” thundered the king.

The king’s son knew he was in trouble, but he was a quick thinker.  “Father,” he said, “I am as disappointed as you are with the performance of the Governance Committee; so disappointed am I that I shall terminate them summarily.”

“You do that son,” said the king, “and staunch the flow of funds from my coffers. I don’t know much, but I do know that when the treasurer tells me that I am running out of money, I have a serious problem.”

And so the Governance Committee was terminated. The expensive consultants, however, lived on as did the king’s son (who was after all a Prince Too ).  He knew he would try again, but with a more competent Governance Committee.  He had no choice –  the present bunch of incompetents had been summarily terminated.

Acknowledgement

This piece was inspired by Craig Brown’s New Prince2 Hypothesis.

Written by K

May 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm

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