Learning by creating
Learning by creating

“It doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you start”.

It is a quote of John Cage that captures for me a key ingredient of innovation in teams. The composer  meant that for starting a new composition, anything might do. For example, he used principles of the I Ching to introduce chance into his work. Principles that seemingly had nothing to do with music. It is for that reason this quote is often used by musicians. However, as Scott Berkun highlighted in his book “The Myth of Innovation”, the second part (‘as long as you start’ )is just as valuable. If you have to create something new, take something that inspires you for some reason and get moving. Only in the ensuing creative process one can produce something and reflect on it. In time irrevocably the point where it all started is lost, or has changed beyond recognition. This is the core of any design process: frame, move and reflect. Learning by creating.

For me, this principle gains importance if no longer one designer/developer/inventor is involved, but when a team of specialists is collaborating. Above all when they have to invent something new. Most of us (implicitly) believe that teams that develop products or services ‘know’ what they are creating, when they start. E.g., because someone wrote a comprehensive project description, or provided an excellent list of requirements. The reality is quite different: people in development teams do not know precisely what they are creating. Above all when they work on an ‘innovative thing’. How can they possibly know? The required expertise is so large that nobody oversees all – that is why a team of specialists was needed in the first place. Of course: all specialists can explain well what he is doing, and what he believes what the project is about.  Yet, nobody can fully grasp and extrapolate the consequences of all these activities combined. But precisely in the mix of all expertise new ideas arise that nobody had in mind, and new problems emerge that were not expected at all. If one looks at many innovations, one will find that the core insights arose while progressing activities, not a priori. And often these insights were terribly disruptive, making plans and planning instantly outdated. It poses paradoxical questions for the management of product development and innovation, and -as I will argue- shifts the focus from overly rationalistic approaches to approaches that are based on learning while doing. Or better: learning by creating. Design thinking.

A simple example. Let’s consider you want to built a new house – your dream house. You have been thinking about it already for a long time, so you know what you want. Of course an architect needs to draw it out. But already in the first meeting, the architect poses questions you never considered. For example, he visited the site and was inspired to ‘do something’ with the sloping terrain. E.g., to introduce split levels. Something you never considered yourself. In few more sessions, whereby the architect puts forward a range of sketches and even small models, your original plans changed considerably. The kitchen moved to another side, you have another roof design and the garage was somewhere replaced for an indoor playground for your kids. You are happy with it. Once the plans are ‘final’, an engineer is hired. But this man also raises interesting questions you (and the architect) never considered. He proposes a slightly adapted roof design, so that he can develop a much lighter construction for half the price. Also he warns for moist in winter time in some rooms, and proposes an intelligent central air ventilation system. Subsequently, a building contractor is hired, but again: he poses some questions and ideas you never considered. E.g., to use another kind of roof tiles, as those are better priced and – more important- can be delivered in time. In time a house is built that meets your budget, is simply beautiful and has some smart inventions to make it genuinely comfortable. In this example, actually a team of specialist is collaborating with you. Each of them has specific knowledge and competences, and all this expertise together in time crystallizes into your house, which is way off from the plans you had at first. That in hindsight seems quite naive. The example is put forward to highlight a paradoxical situation: one needs a team of specialists to develop something anew, but none of them knows well what the eventual outcome will/must be! Still, they solve the paradox just as many development teams around the world do every day. With your first plans for a house, a budget and a site, in time a new house emerges that is better than any of the original plans. Nobody knew, until it was actually created.

This example is to highlight an aspect of innovation and product development that can be observed every day in the thousands of development teams all around the world, yet that most people will consider odd.

And what managers with an control attitude truly dislike. Rather than sticking to plans, new ideas and problems emerge that upset planning. Rather than listening to a client, teams come up with ideas that change the needs of the client. Rather than doing as told, specialists change their assignment ongoing. And rather than starting with well detailed plans and cost estimates, the teams perform (much) better with a ‘rough’ idea that provides a sense of direction. Because it doesn’t matter where they start, as long as they start.

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