Four Pillars: On innovation and education

This post was triggered by a quotation from Bob Sutton’s Weird Ideas That Work, brought to my notice by Chief Innovation Officer, who also informs us that Professor Sutton is now blogging. Great. And thanks to Chief Innovation Officer.

Here’s the quote:

  • Organising for routine work: Drive out variance
  • Organising for innovative work: Enhance variance

This contention and conflict, explained further in the referring blog, is at the heart of some of the problems we face in attempting to move to Four Pillars models in enterprises.

Of course I agree with the sentiments. But I think we need to take them further.

We have to be careful with the concept of routine work. In the 21st century, I’m not sure why anyone should be doing routine work. We have a war for talent, let’s take it seriously. It seems strange to try hard to attract and retain distinctive and talented people, then make them miserable over time by driving out what we hired them for in the first place.

Routine work should be outsourced. To machines.

The software on those machines should be built opensource.

We have to learn to retain, augment, even celebrate, our “variances”, our diversity. Long tails and wisdom-of-crowds and heterogeneity-driven learning are all about the value of being different. Social software helps us identify people we share things with, then helps us identify the things that we do differently despite our sharing some things. That’s what collaborative filtering is about. Prediction markets will not work except where there are heterogeneous large crowds.

The madness of crowds is about herd instincts and uniformity. We are not cows.

The wisdom of crowds is about anything but herd instincts and uniformity.


Which brings me to the point of this post. It may have been Judy Breck, or maybe it was John Seely Brown in his foreword to her excellent book, who makes the point about how Assembly Line thinking pervades our educational systems. I honestly can’t remember, and don’t have access to my library while travelling.
Here’s my summary of what I can remember about schools and Assembly Line, I wish I could remember where I read it.

Bells for stopwatches. Registers for clipboards. Uniforms for, errm, uniformity. Routines for class schedules. Pupils aggregated into forms and standards and grades. Focus on reducing standard deviation. Usage of bell curves and relative grading. Weird and awful pseudo-psycho-medical terms for outliers and exceptions.

Assembly Lines produce black Model T Fords well. We are not black Model T Fords.

We are human. Distinctive in our individuality.  Otherwise we might as well automate, or even outsource, our humanity. And all this begins with schools.

An aside. I have noticed that we want all our innovation to take place in “creation” tasks such as marketing and customer acquisition and product development and new markets and all that jazz. Yet we spend most of our money in routine tasks which we resolutely refuse to automate. Or innovate.

Yes, innovate. We have more need to innovate in our routine processes than anywhere else. Otherwise we’re not just paving the cow paths, but cementing the cows on them. And then wondering why our fixed costs go up. The Concrete Cow on the Concrete Cow Path. 

3 thoughts on “Four Pillars: On innovation and education”

  1. It is actually the process of ‘Drive out variance’ prevelant in school or enterprise that breeds the variance.

    It is conformity that breeds non-conformance.

    You can have full spectrum of Yin-Yang combination, yet you cannot have just Yin or just Yang.

    In enterprise it is routine work that is the basis of money making. Put another way, source of all money is routine work. Routine can be tweeked creatively etc. But if you take the routine out Routine work, money stops right there.

    The whole process of successful innovation is to translate the new idea into a sustainable routine. Most successful ones are mostly compatiable with the current routines. (Or Cow Paths as you like to call them)

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