The inventing and producing minds
I once heard Alan Kay, a die hard inventor/ researcher, share a comment that gets to the heart of one of the great challenges that mature organizations have when they are in pursuit of developing a continuously renewable innovation culture. Alan and his very exploratory research team were being asked to direct a portion of their time and talents toward an immediate production effort that was under pressure to deliver specific results with a tight budget and schedule. Alan confidently explained to us why he would not ask his creative team to try and do both. He said, ” You can’t produce while you are trying to invent and you can’t invent while you are trying to produce.” Although at that moment he was referring specifically to the different mindsets of individuals on his team- I think that the statement reflects essential challenges for the collective mindset and behavior of organizations.
As human beings we are in tune with the idea of putting out great effort and taking risks to establish a better state for things we care about. The start-up enterprise is based on this ideal. We understand the heuristic of trial and error as an acceptable state of uncertainty, but with an expectation that eventually the struggle leads to a different state or a specific goal.
For example: We can understand the idea of it being difficult to learn to walk, having to struggle, fall, and get up and try again. But we expect to ultimately achieve the state of walking with no falling. After walking successfully for years….then.. the idea of having to learn how to do it over again …doesn’t fit our default world view. Once we have successfully moved our thinking to the production mindset- shifting back to the inventing mindset is difficult.
In a similar way, the champions of new companies initially work heroically and struggle to create new enterprise. But, with their success, not long thereafter, they develop a culture that rewards support of the established enterprise and the visibly productive sources of my paycheck this week become powerful.
The established enterprise culture naturally values that which is already working and rewards incremental improvements to the proven model. Beyond the bureaus of the enterprise the employees also typically value and gravitate toward finding stability in their own individual lifestyles. Regularizing their work lifestyle increases in value over time.. The collective view creates an informal currency and community value for stability and incremental improvement that is part of the employee’s sense of intrinsic value and total compensation.
Understandibly, the established enterprise production mindset considers that, anything which would take energy away from the proven activity, should have to guarantee a better return- ahead of time – and that any contribution of extra effort, should provide evidence of of guaranteed individual compensation- that outweighs the loss of any current returns -including loss of highly valued ( perceived )control and stability. ( Opportunity cost – NPV)
When the producing brain gets some mileage it is not easy for it to quickly shift back to the inventing brain- even if it has unique potential ability to do so. Equally, the inventing mindset has a hard time embracing the values of the production mind. Each view needs to disregard the other one in order to achieve desired results. It takes some transition time and some “runway.” Creating an innovation culture involves the collective organization internalizing a sense of comfort with a cyclical rhythm of losing control and then regaining it.
Organizations have to substantially align their perceived reward systems (a change in the formal and informal currency(s) of the enterprise culture) in order to shift the center of the organization and make continuous innovation culture stick.
If on one hand, there is a designated R&D arm (invention mind) with a culture that rewards the creation of intellectual property and new value potential…… while, on the other hand, the reward systems for the existing operation (production mind) are rewarded for positive yield from current proven activities…… then the tendency will be for the current operation to view the development of anything new as a risky disruption of their already guaranteed returns.
The production mind is driven to optimize toward reliable and proven routines. Trying something new with uncertain outcomes that takes a lot of additional energy can look ridiculous if not threatening to individuals being rewarded for something that is currently working well and generating good results. The production mind becomes more willing to consider alternative inventions after the current offerings have clearly failed. For many industries starting to motivate change at that point can be too late.
Helping the entire organization to share ownership in the challenges and opportunities of the enterprise is key. Alligning reward systems and cultural currencies with desired outcomes is an important part of making it happen.