Andrew Hargadon on How Breakthrough Ideas Happen: An interview by Bob Morris

HargadonAndrew Hargadon is a Professor of Technology Management and Charles J. Soderquist Chair in Entrepreneurship at the University of California at Davis. The primary focus of his research is on the effective management of innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly in the development and commercialization of sustainable technologies. He has written extensively on knowledge and technology brokering and the role of learning and knowledge management in innovation. He has published numerous articles and chapters in leading scholarly and applied publications. Hargadon is at the forefront of teaching, research and practice in cross-disciplinary entrepreneurship, and is founding director of two key centers at UC Davis—the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Energy Efficiency Center. These centers are dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship and innovation through educational programs bridging science, engineering and business. They provide a successful framework for university scientists and engineers to move their ideas out of the lab and into the world.

Hargadon received his doctoral degree from the Management Science and Engineering Department in Stanford University’s School of Engineering, where he was named Boeing Fellow and Sloan Foundation Future Professor of Manufacturing. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University’s Product Design Program in the Mechanical Engineering Department. Prior to his academic appointment, he worked as a product designer at Apple Computer and taught in the Product Design program at Stanford University.

A senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, Hargadon is the author of How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate (Harvard Business School Press, 2003). His most recent book is Sustainable Innovation: Build Your Company’s Capacity to Change the World (Stanford University Press, 2015).

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Morris: I am intrigued by the title of a Harvard Business Review article that you co-authored with Robert Sutton (May-June 2000): “Building an Innovation Factory.” Specifically, use of the word “factory.” Can innovation be manufactured?

Hargadon: No single innovation can be manufactured — meaning specified in advance and built to spec — but the process of innovation can, like the process of manufacturing, be systematized and, as a number of companies have demonstrated, result in the continuous production of innovations. The challenge for anyone interested in organizing for such continuous innovation capabilities is in looking past the “novelty” of the innovation process and its association with great ideas and heroic inventors.

In the same way that craft production and a reliance on individual artisans gave way to industrial production 200 years ago, we’re finding ways to make the process of generating innovative ideas less dependent on the individual genius. Or, more accurately, we’re finding ways to appreciate how the innovative process depends less on individuals and more on the networks that surround them.

Morris: In the same article, you and Sutton discuss what you characterize as a “knowledge brokering.” What specifically does this on-going process consist of?

Hargadon: The knowledge brokering process describes how breakthrough innovations are put together in organizations. More specifically, it describes how those innovations that revolutionize product and service categories, markets, and even entire industries, are rarely built from scratch. Indeed, they are rarely the first appearance of a new technology. Instead, such breakthroughs are the result of moving existing ideas from where they were known to where they are not.

From Edison to Ford to modern innovations coming from 3M, HP, and Apple, revolutionary products and processes come from the recombination of existing ideas. The research that identified the knowledge brokering process revealed how these innovations came from the deliberate cultivating of networks that enabled firms to see what technologies already existed, even in vastly different industries and applications, to recognize the opportunities to bring them together, and to build the new networks in which these new combinations could thrive.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read How Breakthroughs Happen, you suggest that it may come as a “surprising truth” that innovation succeeds “not by breaking free from constraints of the past but instead by harnessing the past in powerful new ways.” Please expand on that observation.

Hargadon: As I said earlier, the notion of the lone genius and the brilliant insight are persistent models for how to pursue innovations, and how to organize others to innovate. But they are dangerous models as well. One way these models persistently get in the way of innovation is through our obsession with the new. Too many good ideas have been shot down by the simple observation that they’ve been tried before, but this is the case with almost every breakthrough.

The incandescent light bulb was 40 years old when Edison began his work on it; mass production combined ideas that were 30-130 years old. Edison and Ford, like their successful counterparts today, did not try to break free of the past. Instead, they deliberately embraced it. They hired people who had worked on previous attempts; they sought out experiences and expertise wherever they could find it¾inside and outside the company. The most effective goals of an organization’s innovation process should be to harness the past¾not forget it.

Morris: I am reminded of Carla O’Dell’s observation in If We Only Knew What We Know when discussing what she calls “beds of knowledge.” They are “hidden resources of intelligence that exist in almost every organization, relatively untapped and unmined.” Presumably you agree. In your opinion, how can these “hidden resources” most effectively be “tapped,” “mined,” etc.?

Hargadon: These “beds of knowledge” exist inside the company, but also and often more importantly, they exist outside the company (and even industry). When Henry Ford decided to build a new factory for the Model T, he hired two machine tools designers and salesmen to oversee the construction and management of the plant. These two people, Max Wollering and Walter Flanders, had seen mass production tried in a range of different industries, from canning to bicycle manufacture to sewing machines.

By the time they got to the automobile industry, they could and did bring knowledge from across a range of these other domains. It’s not enough to decide that everyone in the organization should know what everyone else knows¾it’s also about deciding to learn what else is known outside the organization. That requires building effective networks that reach outside the organization and across distant industries.

Morris: I agree with you that innovation must unfold at the ground level, “in the minds and hearts of the engineers and entrepreneurs who are doing the work.” What must senior managers do to nourish and support a culture in which that consistently occurs?

Hargadon: Senior managers must do everything they can to enable and encourage the engineers and entrepreneurs “doing the work” to seek out and build on the many valuable ideas and resources already in the environment. Rather than rewarding people (explicitly and implicitly) for solving their own problems, managers must reward people for seeking help from others, for helping others on their projects, for building on the ideas of others, and for rewarding those same behaviors in others.

Here’s a quick test for managers involved in innovation projects: how many of their direct reports had lunch with someone outside their group in the last week? How about outside their firm, or even industry? How insulated is the project team—and is this secrecy preventing as much knowledge from getting in as it is supposedly stopping from getting out?

Morris: Throughout How Breakthroughs Happen, you stress the importance of teamwork. Based on your extensive experience with various teams, what do those that are most productive share in common?

Hargadon: Two traits are critical. First, the ability and desire to solve problems collectively. In many organizations I have seen, teams and individuals are punished for not knowing the answer. And yet the most effective teams I have found are those that willingly advertise their ignorance—that seek out the ideas of others. This comes through in the way individuals within the team willingly share their problems and ideas with their teammates (what Amy Edmondson of Harvard calls “psychological safety”) and also in the way individuals and entire teams go in search of answers throughout the organization and elsewhere. The second trait is the ability to commit to a single idea when it’s time to stop searching and start delivering.

Morris: Can any organization (regardless of size or nature) have such a team? Your thoughts, please.

Hargadon: Absolutely—but it’s a matter of choice. And focus. The teams that work collectively and seek out others’ input are often not as effective at locking in on a single solution and single-mindedly executing it. And vice-versa. To make a team continuously innovative, its members need to be able to move easily between open-minded search and single-minded execution. They need to understand the need for this, but also have the right mix of skills within the team so that they can be effective at these two processes. I’ve seen teams change leadership halfway in order to make the shift, and when they do this consciously it can work very well.

Morris: Here’s a question I bet you are asked all the time. Can the bottom-line impact of “knowledge brokering” be accurately measured? If so, how?

Hargadon: It can be measured, but that must be done very carefully. At the level of individuals, there is ample evidence that the ability to build and navigate broad-ranging networks is positively correlated with effectiveness, influence, and even promotion. At the level of organizations, it is harder to separate team innovation performance from organizational and market effects. However, it is possible to audit past projects and compare project performance (cost, speed, and quality) with the extent to which teams drew on past knowledge.

Morris: A final question. In your opinion, which are (or will soon become) the most important information technologies? And a related question: To what extent will each be disruptive?

Hargadon: This is a tough question—requiring bold predictions. The one thing I can say with certainty is that, whatever the most important IT breakthrough will be in the next several decades, it is probably already here somewhere. But that’s avoiding the question. Right now, I believe that we are only halfway through our IT revolution and have a long way to go before we arrive.

Our access to information is increasing exponentially while our ability to separate signal from noise has barely changed: we receive (and send) more emails than we can effectively deal with; we collect more data from customers and suppliers than we need; we monitor and automate processes we don’t even understand. Some of the most important information technologies we’ll see will be those that allow us to rise above the noise we’ve created in our own lives and see the forest for the trees.

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Andy cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

His UC Davis faculty page link

LinkedIn link

“It’s Not About the Idea” YouTube video link

Business Innovation Factory link

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