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Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

Systems Innovation, or The Fifth Disciple Revisited

Sep 03 2015

The most helpful topic for an Innovation Center blog would seem to be examining whether innovativeness can be instilled in people the way installing computer programs enables us to do different things, and if so, how is it downloaded, or learned?  Is there a single Skill Set underpinning all the other attributes that are identifiable in the majority of innovators, short of the few savants floating around, and even there?  Do innovations like the light bulb and Internet arise out of nowhere, or evolve as species do: putting similar things together again and again, and how is that done? 


Monsieur du Hautoy was a mincing dandy, and the little attentions he paid to his person made him finicky and childish.  He worried about his cough, his sleep, his digestión and his food.  Zephirine had encouraged her factótum to pose as a man of delicate health; she coddled him, muffed him up; she crammed him with tidbits like a marquise’s lap-dog; she prescribed or forbade him this or that food; she embroidered waistcoats, cravat-ends and handkerchiefs for him; in the end she got him so much into the habit of wearing decorative trifles that she transformed him into a sort of Japanese idol.”

                        from Lost Illusions, ch. 3, Honore de Balzac  Translated by Herbert J. Hunt

I put the quote here, not to taunt fellow aspiring scribes, but to illustrate how systematic language can be; even plain old prose, and I can throw a hundred similar examples your way from that novel alone, not to mention poems of John Donne’s, William Blake’s, and others besides Shakespeare, Dante, and Homer.
It’s been a while since I read Peter Senge’s influential book, The Fifth Discipline, so I looked it up in Wikipedia to refresh my memory, and I gotta tell ya, I don’t know what he was thinking when he came up with his first four, right off the bat.  I’ll haggle with anyone—I repeat, anyone—about the Outline of Academic Disciplines in Wikipedia boiling down to the Humanities, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Mathematics, which to my mind encompasses everything else that Wikipedia is calling Formal Sciences.  About all I do recall of the book is that language use is nowhere mentioned in it as every bit as much, if not a more exemplary system than the business ones he discusses, let alone provides an ideal model—some might say, the ideal model—for mplementing business systems of every kind.
onically, one of the co-founders of Organizational Development altogether, Chris Argyris, posed in his chapter (26, I b’lieve it was) of The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, "People don't talk about what they see; they see only what they can communicate," which I mentioned in early last September’s post, “The World As Metaphor.”  WHAT, dare I ask, is The Point of any business system, however exotic or ordinary, if the people in it don’t see what the heck is going on in the first place, much less what isn’t?
One of the things I noticed, observing my twin sons’ athletic development, then harkening back to my own, is that the farther along we got, the more time we spent on fundamental underlying skills like sheer speed, strength, stamina, flexibility, timing, and touch,  than actually practicing or playing a sport.  One step up from those in basketball, for instance, are dribbling, passing, shooting, and rebounding a ball; in baseball, they would be throwing, catching, hitting, and base running skills.  The Little League World Series concluded recently.  How almost instantaneously quickly 12-year olds, many still under 100 lbs., revert from catching to throwing a ball, is alone staggering to behold.  None—I repeat, none—of the situations in athletics (or the arts or sciences, for that matter; nor a business) occur in isolation, but combinations of them, requiring combinations of skills and the skills underpinning those skills, to accomplish them.
Like every work of literature.or any of the other arts, business systems have a certain Content, Form, Style, and Tone.  Every situation does.  The rest of the posts are chock full of Good Information about them in every facet of work and life.

I spoke briefly in an Energy and Innovation class here this week, along with several other speakers, who had electronics, pollution, conservation, and exploitation projects going, so when my turn came (dead last, what can I tell ya) I proclaim that I'm speaking about Energy of A Whooole Different Color, as things are known in the merry old land of Oz, and tap my head three times with my pointer finger.  As Fate would have it (whether or not you believe in such things) one of the students—I repeat, juuust one—collars me after class and says she likes my idea, only she doesn't have such hot technological skills, so I point out the glass wall in front of us in the lobby at Harriman Hall with students walking by at a pace of roughly one a second, and tell her that she probably knows some in other classes or departments who do, only they also probably know what’s going on at the Prada in Barcelona or Berlin Philharmonic better than what’s going on here, just as business students know more about micro-financing in Nigeria than what gives in the art, music, or psychology departments right on campus.
I ask if she plays any sports.  Volleyball turns out to be her game.  You don’t have to know much about the sport to figure that some people are better at slamming the ball at opponents from the net, some are better at passing it to them, some are better servers, and every team needs at least one person, who serves as a leader.
Might one very easily see the Administrative department of a business as the leaders, the Finance department the servers, the Marketing department the slammers, and the Operations department the passers?  Let’s slice the pie another way: Operations are the Content, Administration is the Form, Marketing is the Style, and Finance sets the Tone. 
The previous post pertained to Orientation.  I was in one some years ago; decades, to be more accurate, thankfully.  A company whose $60 million revenue came exclusively from one-on-one direct sales was introducing call centers to handle existing customers that we had gone out in the proverbial sleet and snow—I mean, literally­—to get.  The CEO gave the keynote address, but lemme tell ya, it was all—I repeat, ALL—about the money!  He used—dig this—the Dead Sea and Great Salt Lake as change analogies.  The room began to wreak as the salt content on the bodies grew to similar disproportions.  The top 20% doing 80% of the sales (can you guess who was numero uno?) took a hike soon thereafter, taking their customers with them elsewhere.  Trust me on this one: Finance sets the Tone, the Mood, the Atmosphere, call the thrill of a big paycheck what you will.
The student looked puzzled; one might almost say, troubled. 
How can they get … credit?” (speaking of paychecks)

Here’s where this gets reeeal interesting, as I like to say.  Every crime story, every war story, every Western story, one might well say every love story since Casablanca and The Graduate come to mind immediately, and you can throw in West Side Story, South Pacific, and Dr. Zhivago while we’re at it, revolves around someone doing something unconventional to win the day.
Edmund Wilson, indisputably one of the seminal thinkers of the last century, wrote a book called The Wound and the Bow, after the essay of that title in it, about Odysseus’ fabled archer, Patrokles, having a wound that festers, whose stench leads the others to plead that Odysseus leave him behind.  As a then fairly contemporary example, Wilson cites Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, about a doctor in a town whose economy revolves around the hot water springs there, discovering that the waters are contaminated by a factory upstream.  Sound familiar?  No one in Amity wanted the beaches shut down, either, just because Richard Dreyfuss said a giant shark was feeding there, in Jaws.
Far be it from me to tell a student to you know WHAT the system.  We need the system to hold things in place.  But the system also needs those who hit the mark, in order to grow and evolve, even if they make a stink now and then, so it can meet the changing needs of those it serves. 
I told her that for some time now, I've been trying to get the renowned, if I may, innovators who run the show here, to create the first ever Inter-Departmental Project Website, which I hinted about in the April 6th and other posts. 
“The project involves every discipline, I point out. “Whatever your friends, who have the necessary technical skills, are majoring in, we—as a team extraordinaire—should be able to make their efforts fit a project for one of their own classes.  Remember algebra and trig'?  Lotsa people know all kindsa math waaay beyond that.  Everything = Everything Else IF you can do the math and have the vision to boldly go where no student has gone before.  We’re the Innovation Center, after all, ain’t we?
“You might say that every system involves every discipline,” I add, inspired by the mega-wattage all around us in the air.  “Maybe that’s the definition of one, and how to tell what’s missing where there is none and things aren’t done systematically. 
“I’m no systems authority,” I confess, “but then, who is?  Now there’s a project for you to follow up with fast on the heels of this one: are systems experts any more often right than your average small business owner with a knack turning a wrench?  Are any experts any more likely right than the people they’re talking to, given the same chance to change things around?"
ery much a grownup, I felt it was fair play to ask how she thought it would look on her and her friends’ resumes, laying the groundwork for that IDPW higher education coup, to get credit where credit is due, aside from the project we were originally discussing. 
Funny thing: we’re trained from Kindergarten up to be compliant, yet nothing impresses an employer like bucking the system.

Stony Brook University Innovation Center, Stony Brook, NY 11794-3775

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