All living organisms are representations of complex DNA systems. All material constructs, whether thoughts, objects, processes or concepts are representations of man-made DNA- or this is how I envision them to be. Innovation is an abstract concept with a maze of paths designed to lead to it; paths depend partially on perspectives and partially on scientific methodologies. Today I am going to discuss one perspective and methodology in particular: innovation as a by-product of knowledge social structures and organizations’ internal routines- IDEO’s innovation DNA.
IDEO is a product consulting company based in Palo Alto California, established in 1978. It specializes in providing clients with solutions to product design challenges. Solutions range from building a prototype from scratch, to improving a functional or a design feature. So far IDEO has worked with companies from over 40 industries solving a continuous stream of diverse products. How do they manage?
Two theories are relevant here: social network theory and capabilities (internal routines) theory. First one is based on the premise that brokers or intermediaries bridge knowledge or resource gaps between disparate actors. Brokers add value based on their network position, which in turn allows them to transfer resources owned by one actor onto another actor who values the respective resources. Once brokers gain experience from using their intermediary position to make transactions, they not only acquire diverse knowledge but use a piece of knowledge they learned from one actor to solve a problem of another actor.
In order to gain access to diverse knowledge a privileged intermediary position is rudimentary, but to learn how to transform the knowledge into a specific solution innovative organizational routines are paramount. IDEO has developed these routines through extensive and repetitive work with clients, starting from trial and error, moving onto identifying best practices and concluding with the institutionalization of the ‘acquisition’, ‘storage’, and ‘retrieval’ routines to transform diverse knowledge into specific solutions.
IDEO has gathered organizational memory which automatically triggers the acquisition routine; as soon as a client introduces a problem, IDEO’s rich knowledge from dealings with over 40 industries, its active work on building and establishing new solutions, its diverse in-house talents and curiosity for expanding skills at remote external locations, constantly nurture the acquisition of wide variety of knowledge. Furthermore, IDEO’s organizational structure is such that communicating ideas, asking questions and sharing information is rewarded.
Once an organization accumulates mountains of knowledge they need to figure out a system for storing that knowledge. IDEO’s knowledge is stored both in the designers’ minds and in past prototypes. That is not all; IDEO has crafted an advanced ‘book-keeping’ system where reports and notes from previous projects are safely kept and easily accessible because certain designers’ role is to keep track of what projects everyone is doing at the time and what is each designer skill specialty (although everyone is encouraged to use that particular skill in novel projects and situation hence teams change with every project)
Finally retrieval knowledge is smooth and automatic because of IDEO institutionalized practices to make it so. For example IDEO holds a brainstorming session each Monday where designers are encouraged to bring their notes ideas and past prototypes to take apart and analyze each functional feature. Once an entire library of existing knowledge is put to the table it is easier to make analogies between one technical aspect from one industry and apply it in a novel way for a different industrial purpose- giving light to innovation.
Innovation without institutionalized routines is impossible- too much time and mental work is expended for finding the right solutions. Routines in turn allow this process to occur automatically, as it is the case in IDEO. One should bear in mind however that routines don’t form over night- a continuous conscious effort and trial and error is an indispensible for shaping an organization’s innovative culture.