Why would a company whose very existence depends on developing new products and services — many of them highly technical — hire recent graduates with degrees in music, history or pre-med along with industrial designers, engineers and MBA graduates? The management at IDEO, a Silicon Valley-based company revered for consistent, award-winning innovation, has long understood a basic principle: Creativity occurs at the intersection of different perspectives.
When highly experienced personnel work with someone new to the organization or to the context, a combination of their different approaches can yield significant creative benefits. Why? One reason is experience. Deep experience in a given context is critical to innovation.
Over years of working with a particular set of product lines, technology and clientele, long-term personnel develop a host of proven techniques, diagnostics and processes. Such individuals build up a valuable repository of experience they use to quickly diagnose problems and apply proven solutions. They know the nonobvious capabilities and frailties in the organization, and they have a network of experts they can call upon for help to augment their own abilities. They know the inner workings of products and the history behind services. All of these are good bases for innovation. Companies such as 3M Co., IBM Corp. and Procter & Gamble Co. have been building on and expanding their capabilities for decades, and they rely on expertise from top talent to do so.
Welcoming a Technology Perspective
Of course, the path to innovation is never straight ahead. By definition, innovation requires deviations from history. That is why a beginner’s mind is so valuable. A fresh perspective can come from a new hire or from a fellow employee with a different experience base. Such individuals are not really beginners because they bring their own expertise. But their minds are often free of preconceptions, assumptions or limitations their colleagues have. So they start with a fresh mental page.
New hires fresh from school, for example, are often intimately familiar with tools that simply didn’t exist when older employees received their education. Teresa Roche, former vice president and chief learning officer at Agilent Technologies, said the highly experienced team she led knew they needed to use technology to better enable work. They were particularly intrigued by potential use for collaboration technology among far-flung team members.
Their starting point was the Emerging Leaders Program, in which 32 promising next-generation leaders around the world participated. While the team had experimented with technology, members thought it was a great opportunity to welcome a new perspective. They hired Nick Klute, who had a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology but only one year of work experience after college. A digital native, Klute was both competent and confident in his use of technology. It was not an add-on for him but simply the way work got done.
One great advantage he held over his more experienced colleagues was, being new to the organization, he was unencumbered with history about the success or failure of earlier innovations. However, the team was not naive about how easily busy employees would embrace the opportunity to learn new collaboration tools. The innovation took root because of the team’s experience-based ability to navigate the organizational shoals as well as Klute helping the technology adopters and his grasp of the breadth of potential benefits. He saw opportunities for technology applications that were not obvious to his otherwise experienced colleagues. Further, he pushed the participants to use their iPads not just for email but also for voting, reflective journaling and a host of work-enabling and community-building applications. The organization was successful using the best of two knowledge bases — old and new.
Brent Kedzierski, learning manager for Shell Upstream-Americas, told a somewhat similar story about a graduate intern who capitalized on a senior Shell technical expert’s deep smarts to deliver an unexpectedly innovative and valuable contribution. The senior Shell technical expert asked the new professional to build a dataset to feed into a high-resolution basin model being developed for the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin.
The challenge was to use both Shell proprietary data and a vast amount of publicly available data. With a modest amount of guidance, the intern performed at a level of sophistication and refinement beyond expectations. Kedzierski said he was tenacious and imaginative — he not only applied various data manipulation techniques unfamiliar to his senior mentor but also sought out other experts for additional insights, an unusual and unexpected approach to data-collection not usually employed for this task.
Boeing Looks Within
Sometimes a beginner’s mind already exists within a company; it might just reside in a different division. In large corporations, there are many opportunities to combine different types of expertise — if personnel recognize the potential.
In 2013, Boeing Co. submitted an ultimately successful proposal to NASA for the design and development of a replacement vehicle for the obsolete space shuttle. While the immediate mission requirement was to ferry supplies and astronauts to the space station, ultimately such a reusable vehicle could carry space tourists. Boeing’s Space Exploration division, or SE, had decades of experience designing rockets and spacecraft, such as the famous Apollo spacecraft, for the U.S. government.
The division was also the primary contractor for the International Space Station. Boeing’s Space Exploration engineers had considerable expertise designing vehicles to safely withstand the rigors of sending humans into space; however, they had always designed for experienced astronauts.
A relatively new Boeing hire brought a different perspective to the project. Rachelle Ornan-Stone had five years of experience designing interiors in commercial airliners in the Boeing Commercial Airplane division, or BCA. This role required a strong human factor and industrial design approach to passenger experience. Ornan-Stone set forth a challenge to a four-person core team as well as satellite participants, to translate Boeing’s recognizable airplane look and feel to the spacecraft interior while adhering to stringent design requirements.
The team adapted the successful Boeing Sky Interior lighting of the 787 aircraft for the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft baseline design. BCA and SE teams worked in tandem to ensure the new lighting system could meet requirements related to heat emission, energy usage, glare, off-gassing, flammability and fixture location for full-crew and crew-cargo missions. Once the lighting concept was installed in the Houston mockup, seasoned Space Exploration leadership members were enthusiastic. The lighting not only increased perceived spaciousness for the limited interior volume but also lifted their spirits. They could see and feel the difference.
“This kind of collaboration across businesses is key to innovation at Boeing,” said Timothy Bridges, director of knowledge management.
Breaking Down Barriers
All of these examples share a kind of creative fusion. The newcomers enter a well-established context with new assumptions, new insights and different approaches to accomplish work goals. In all cases, the newbies built on existing reservoirs of experience-based knowledge. Both are necessary in today’s organizations: fresh eyes and the wisdom born from decades of problem-solving.
But there are often significant organizational barriers to putting those two perspectives together. Some of these are personal, some are institutional and others are structural. First, some top talent might object to working with less-experienced people, doubting their ability to offer valuable input, or perhaps fearing competition from fresh minds.
Further, working with inexperienced people requires valuable time to orient them to the context. For experts in their own domain, learning new technologies can be frustrating, time-consuming and humbling. If a team’s time is being charged to a client, the client might object to paying for less-experienced team members.
None of these objections is an insurmountable barrier. Consider these strategies:
If experienced people are being asked to use new tools or technologies, provide easy access to learning support — more than junior employees might think is necessary. Experienced people might not want to ask for help, and some will not want to rely on reverse mentoring from younger people. However, some will; that is a cause for celebration because it creates an opportunity to bring experience and beginner’s minds together.
New hires might not appreciate how much experience underlies the organization’s success. Exposing new hires to the history of contributions by in-house experts to current and recent innovations can help everyone understand how critical the core capabilities of the organization are to sustained competitive advantage.
Look for more ways that junior employees can be included on project teams. An organization’s clients likely will understood the importance of developing younger talent. Perhaps even more important is helping clients understand the value of new perspectives to problem-solving.
Visibly celebrate any examples of successful creative fusion in the organization.
It’s difficult to think of an organization that cannot benefit significantly from using decades of experience as well as new or different forms of expertise. Because of the speed of technological change, one might be tempted to over-emphasize the role of the beginner’s mind in organizational innovation. Or, on the other side of the coin, to believe that newcomers need to pay dues in the form of years of experience before they can make a significant contribution.
Instead, we should instead challenge long-time experts to work effectively — and creatively — with newcomers.
Dorothy Leonard is professor emerita at Harvard Business School and chief adviser for the Leonard-Barton Group. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.