The Anthropology of Innovation panel

Last week, the Computer History Museum hosted a panel on “The Anthropology of Innovation”. I had to attend since I’m a fan of anthropology, I’m fascinated by corporate culture and how it leads to goals like innovation, and the panel featured Genevieve Bell of Intel, who Jofish and Janet interned with in Portland one summer. I discovered once I got there that the panel also featured George Kembel, a co-founder of the Stanford d-school, which is an institution I admire. I wasn’t as impressed with the third panelist, Laura Tyson, despite her impressive resume including being Clinton’s Chief Economic Advisor

This post is mostly a transcription of my scribbled notes so I have a searchable way of referring to them in the future. It will be even less coherent than my normal posts, as my notes are mostly quotes I found interesting. C’est la vie.

Gillian Tett, the moderator, is an anthropology major turned journalist. She started off the evening with a few remarks on her observations of innovation in society and in companies:

  • Every society has a cognitive map.

  • “The blank spaces are important.” I think this referred to the idea that the things we don’t talk about provide clues to the assumptions that are taken for granted and could be fertile areas for questioning.
  • Companies are organized by silos – increasingly interconnected but also increasingly fragmented
  • Innovation is about silo busting.

George Kembel then spoke from his perspective as a former entrepreneur turned educator.

  • He said innovation is “thinking freely in the presence of constraints”. The constraints are important as they bound the problem and create the opportunity for innovation. No constraints means you could do anything.

  • To answer the question of “how do you innovate?”, he observed that design thinking is not just about designing products – you can be creative in everything you do, whether it’s designing business models, new processes, etc.
  • He thinks of d.school as a “school crossing” where they can integrate different points of views, existing outside of the traditional “schools” of engineering, science, arts, etc.
  • He mentioned that when they started, they were looking for faculty support for their interdisciplinary school, and they had expected the young up-and-coming professors to be their advocates. But those younger professors were all trying to establish themselves in their field and earn tenure, so they couldn’t take risks by going outside their field. Surprisingly, it ended up being the long-established tenured professors who were more willing to take the risks of crossing between fields. Interesting observation of incentives and constraints there.
  • Pay more attention to people, not technology.
  • When you’re not sure of what to do, try lots of experiments.
  • On the topic of how the d.school encourages innovation, he said that the focus is on the student as an innovator – it’s getting the person to innovate, not about creating a process of innovation. Teaching students to break barriers, to find new ways of looking at the problem, that’s where the innovation will come from. The teacher does not have all the answers, but is more of a coach and facilitator. I like the human-centered approach, which recognizes that each person is dealing with unique situations, so no standard process will work for all of those situations, but teaching the person techniques will allow them to address their own individual situation.
  • One suggestion was for students to get a “shared experience of the user whose life they wanted to make better”, as “the biggest barriers to innovation are our own biases and assumptions.” A great story here – the man leading the GE MRI division was really proud of the great technology he had built that saved lives. After going to the d.school, he realized he had never seen an MRI machine in a hospital, so he visited his local hospital. He saw the machine and it was glorious and a shining beacon of technology. And then he saw the little kid who was the next patient, who shrieked in terror at this ginormous scary instrument and sobbed and wouldn’t let go of her parents. And he realized that technology wasn’t the only factor to consider. After some more work, he developed a program with the hospitals where they turned going to the MRI into a camping adventure, with camp counselors instead of nurses, and with the MRI machine decorated as a tent for them to hide in. This program, while it was better for the kids, also improved his bottom-line instrument throughput, as the kids were eager to get in and didn’t hold up the process. Nifty story to demonstrate how a user-focused approach can lead to breakthroughs in how you perceive a problem.
  • To innovate, you must be “willing to invite discomfort into your life” as you realize your biases and assumptions might be wrong. “Don’t just accept the problem as it’s framed.”
  • “Our experts are our liabilities”
  • On K-12 education, he said the question isn’t how to teach innovation, it’s how to preserve the creativity of kids – they have it, we just have to not crush it out of them.

Genevieve Bell’s comments:

  • She started with the great story of how when she was hired at Intel, she asked her manager what she was supposed to study. Her manager said “Women.” Genevieve said “Um, women? You mean, all 3.2 billion of them?” “Yes, we don’t think we understand women.” “Okay….anything else?” “ROW” “What does ROW mean?” “Rest of World.” “So….World in this case means?” “The US” “Oh, okay, so everybody on the planet outside the US, plus women. No problem!”

  • One of her rallying cries is “That may be your world view, but it’s not everybody’s”
  • She said one of the reasons she was successful was “sheer stubbornness”, and that “people measure me by my being difficult”. One such story was where she told Paul Otellini, the CEO of Intel, that he was just wrong at a meeting. She could feel everybody around her internally gasping at her audacity, but Otellini asked her why, and she provided him with her data and supporting arguments and changed his mind. Yay anthropology!

I submitted a question that was selected by the panel moderator which was that in an increasingly specialized world where companies are looking for a specific skill set, and with innovation depending on busting silos, where does the generalist fit in? Genevieve had a great response, which was that a “generalist” adds value if they can “curate the conversation from multiple points of view”. She suggested that I was limiting myself by calling myself a generalist, and needed to re-brand and re-imagine my role to create an specialization that companies would value (e.g. “curator”). George said something similar, where he recommended thinking of myself as an integrator, not as a person outside of specialization. Another point he brought up when I approached him after the panel was that the idea of being T-shaped, with both a broad awareness and a deep area of specialization, is somewhat outmoded – we actually need more people who can integrate different viewpoints by having a certain level of depth in multiple fields, rather than just a shallow awareness in several and a deep expertise in one.

The final discussion was interesting, where an audience member asked about how to apply these ideas to health care. Laura suggested taking George’s viewpoint of focusing on the patient, and re-centering everything in the business around the patient. Instead of having specializations where each doctor was only responsible for their area leading to patients getting passed all around the hospital from doctor to doctor, re-design the whole process around making the patient experience better. George expanded upon that by suggesting that we don’t think of patients as sick, but as healthy people who are temporarily un-well, and thinking of medicine as the process to accelerate them back to their normal selves as quickly as possible.

Genevieve then blew my mind by asking if we could take a similar approach to government, where we put the citizen in the middle and organize the government around enabling the citizen. She didn’t exactly know what that would mean, and it depends on the idea that citizens embrace their role as representing their country. People would have to go beyond thinking of themselves as tax-payers who get services from their government (police, army, social security, etc), towards being citizens who embrace their role as representing the government. It was an interesting thought-experiment and a great way to end the night.

Nifty ideas all around. Fun thought-provoking evening, and I’ll have to think more about my generalist branding given the feedback from the panel.

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