box2Where do we find inspiration for innovation? Where do new ideas come from when you’ve become so expert in your discipline that everything around you is familiar? You’ve seen it all. Your massive weight of experience is actually holding you back.

Granted there are lucky few who can look through the experience around them to see new horizons. But where do the rest of us look? Indeed, where do we look?

One option is to leave your discipline. Go on a walk about, you might say. If I’m trying to inspire myself within change and organizational management, I need to leave them. It’s like thinking outside the box but instead you are intentionally going to another box.

See, the problem I have with the thinking outside the box metaphor is that you are basically asking if you could do anything different what would it be. That’s just a paralyzing question. You may as well stick your hand into a box of ideas and pick one out at random.

So no, we instead need to go to another discipline’s box. First, this is good because different disciplines inherently think in different ways that you do even if not particularly innovative within their own box, though innovative thinking is a bonus.  Second, this places limitations on what you’re going to be looking at. Allows the dialog to be specific.  And because it is limited you are forced to think creatively about how their thought processes and innovations intersect with your world.

So here’s an example of looking in someone else’s box.

The Biology Box

I chose to look inside the discipline of Biology. I chose biology because I don’t know anything about biology. My knowledge of biology stopped when I was in middle school and we had to dissect a frog and I passed out.  So this should be new ground for me.

So I did a search for innovation in biology. I came across many articles. Most of which I didn’t have the biology knowledge to understand. But finally came across a shorter article that was approachable.

Bacterial Colonies Evolve Amazing Diversity

cell2This article caught my eye because of the words evolve and diversity. Two words very much alive in the change and organizational management lexicon.  You can read the article here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140630124413.htm

The essence of the article is that with the help of new tools biologists are able to look at bacterial colonies in more detail and specifically at the cell level to identify different environmental impacts and such.

These things called out to me as interesting:

  • The layers of bacteria on the bottom nearest solid source have access to more nutrients and less oxygen
  • The layers on top have access to more oxygen and less nutrients
  • The layers in between have a diverse combination of access to nutrients and oxygen
  • As the colony ages cells adapt to rising levels in toxins and decreasing nutrients, adapting and evolving to the changing environment.

So how can this help me think about organizational change?

Let’s say the cells on the bottom near the source are the line workers and the nutrients are the knowledge gained at the operational level. Let’s say the cells on top are management and the oxygen is the ability to see beyond the daily grind.

The first and not particularly new thought was that in order to have better access do we strive for a thin organization where oxygen and nutrients are, if not equal, more available to the all? Would a thinner organization minimize unwanted mutations (like attitudes, processes, sub-cultures)? Would an organization be healthier while thinner because it would be easier to identify and remove toxins? Something to think about.

My next thought was yes, it would be great to thin an organization’s hierarchy out, but in larger companies a wholesale reorganization of that type would be a major shakeup and could take years. What other options do we have?

Well, since we think having access to both nutrition and oxygen are important for a healthy cell and overall organization, do we force oxygen down into the bottom layers?  Do we force nutrition up to the top? Sounds logical. So we need to create channels or mechanisms for this to happen.

We could try a couple things. We could send managers to the floor to observe and interact and do as much hands on work as is feasible. Not for a few hours not for a day. But like a week or more. You need time to see it.

Why? Because higher up we forget or never knew what it was like to work at the source, on the line. Things evolve so any being removed a few years can leave us blind to the current environment and culture. We get perspective. We get nutrients coming right form the source. Oh, this is what it’s really like to work in my company. Might be eye opening. We get to see how life has evolved and adapted, for good and for bad. So now the oxygen rich cells have access to the nutrients below.

And what about the cells near the source, near the nutrients.  Send line supervisors to planning and strategy and decision making meetings. Ask questions back and forth.  Learn to see that the strategic and the tactical have to work together.

And what if we put in elevators so that oxygen and nutrients could flow more strongly from top to bottom and bottom to top. Communication that is making sure the right information is flowing back and forth. We all know we need to communicate but what is the right information? Well, that’s what you learn when the top is embedded in the bottom and the bottom is embedded in the top.

The Point

I could keep going but you get the point. Looking inside biology’s box allowed me to think about change from a different angle. If I keep digging deeper and start bouncing these ideas off my colleagues maybe we find some insights. Maybe we don’t, but we keep looking, we keep infusing different attitudes and ideas into our discipline. Maybe there is inspiration in the physics box or the logistics box or the Dr. Seuss box.

Oh, the places you’ll go. You should go take a look.

 

 

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