Thought Leadership At UC-Davis Graduate School Of Management: Professor Andrew Hargadon On Innovation

Thought Leadership at UC-Davis

Andrew B. Hargadon is a professor of technology management at UC-Davis Graduate School of Management

Hargadon: But if the people you bring together all know the same thing, you have a culture where your knowledge of the same thing has to be either better or worse than mine. We’re evaluating ourselves on the very same body of knowledge. After studying this at IDEO, we looked at Anderson, McKinsey and also at the Design Continuum in Boston. We understood that every project is an opportunity to learn from your client–not to give them your knowledge, but actually to go and explore what are you doing here? Why are you doing that? How did you do that? And so any individual designer’s career was contingent on their ability to learn as much from other people as they could and then share that as often as they could on other projects.

Byrne: What a fascinating insight. How did your research evolve from there to innovation and entrepreneurship in a technology business?

Hargadon: That led to a series of papers and then a book, but one of the things that I had done in that process was actually go back to examine historical innovations. I had the opportunity to go to the Menlo Park Research Lab and look at Edison’s work, not necessarily from an organizational perspective but more from an engineer’s perspective. And so I had a wonderful tour with the archivists and others and it was obvious, in fact, that Edison’s business. He was a consultant who started out doing his inventing for clients in the telegraph industry and then in other industries The archivist took me downstairs to a bookshelf that had been lovingly recreated with all this stuff and it was all the past products they had built: telegraph machines, telegraph repeaters, and generators. You could look at all of them and they were all missing parts. And it’s because they would go down and grab that part off of this product to use it somewhere else on a new product. They were constantly brokering between projects or between fields. That got me really interested in the history of innovating. You then start to look at the work inventors were actually doing and what they knew at the time based on the patent applications they were filing, the notes in their lab notebooks, the letters they were writing, and the investor pitches they were making.

So now I’ve been doing ethnographies and case studies, but this added a new opportunity to go in and look at places that have rich records. Most of what we interpret is the result of looking back many years later and saying, “Yeah, that was penicillin.” That must’ve been a brilliant innovation when, in fact, if you go back and look, you discover that Alexander Fleming (known for finding the world’s first broadly effective antibiotic substance) didn’t know what he had discovered. It had yet to be made real by others. And it gave me the opportunity to study innovation differently. We know the end, so we fill in the blanks and guess what happened. We interpret what we think happened.

Byrne: As opposed to what really happened.

Hargadon: Right. We do our best to understand what they were thinking and doing at the time. So part of that research then led me to studies on Edison and others now about the role of design. We often think that innovations are so revolutionary they sell themselves. But Edison took enormous pains, even hobbling his technology, in order to make it look just like the gas lighting that was already in the buildings that he was hoping to electrify. And he did that not only for customers but for regulators. He incorporated as a gas company because that meant immediately he could dig underground in the city streets and bury lines. Whereas if he had been an electric lighting company, he wouldn’t have had those rights. So looking at innovation not as a challenge of doing something that’s never been done necessarily, but getting others to accept what has never been done as just like something that you’re already doing. That was sort of a strategic shift that brings design into the innovation process more.

Byrne: Has the process of innovation changed over the years? Is it exactly the same as it was in Einstein’s day?

Hargadon: You’re asking sort of a layered question. I think people are still doing what they’ve always done. I think the way we describe it has changed. If you go to an airport bookstore, you’ll see five or six books de jour of how to do innovation. Those things change everyone now. I think there’s a rhythm to those because we sort of return to the same old stuff time and again, but that’s a different layer. That’s a layer of let me tell you how you should do it versus let me tell you how they did it. They actually did it. So no, I don’t think it’s changed and yet it’s constantly changing.

Byrne: Over the course of all your research in this field, I wonder if there was an aha moment for you at any given time and what that might’ve been.

Hargadon: There are aha moments all the time. I think one of the wonderful things about being a professor and doing research on a topic you really love is that you’re constantly surprised. The thing is, you don’t know whether that aha moment will actually uncover this enormous goldmine of evidence and things that allow you to build something that’s real that you actually recognize. You also don’t know whether that’s going to resonate with others in the field. So it’s like innovation. You can come up with the greatest idea, but if nobody else recognizes that or if it’s just you who thinks it’s great, it doesn’t go anywhere. I mean, you live for the aha moments and then there’s the two or five years of making that into something that’s useful for others.

Byrne: Andrew, you’ve written a couple books. What are the major insights you gathered from the thinking that went into those books?

Hargadon: The first book, How Breakthroughs Happened, was really developing that story of innovation as a socially situated phenomenon. In other words, we think of somebody as innovative because we haven’t seen what they’ve seen. They don’t think they’ve come up with something brand new. They’ve recognized that what they did was draw from these other people and move forward. I use an encyclopedia from when my daughter was in third grade and she brought it home that had a list of all the inventors. And they were all men and there was a date beside every one of them–the day that Henry Ford invented the automobile, the year that Edison invented the light bulb and on and on. And what does that tell people? So that’s how we think what happens. My book was really an attempt to say don’t believe any of that. Here’s why Edison was great. Here are the notes from Henry Ford going to the meatpacking plant and discovered insights that led to the Model T. You find out that he sent his engineers to the Swift meatpacking plant in order to rebuild it in the Ford plant. These kinds of stories get missed. And so that book was about how do you create a culture and an organization that builds on what’s been done before in an innovative way.

Byrne: It sounds like you got your insights by looking back and studying history instead of looking forward.

Hargadon: Partly. Honestly, by saying this is what people are doing today. Look, they were doing it that way. If you take that lens and go back and look at Edison, you can see that he was doing it that way, too.

Byrne: Or Steve Jobs going to Xerox Park and coming back with the graphic interface idea that made Apple such an early innovator of the personal computer.

Hargadon: Yeah. Elmer Sperry of Sperry Rand was the other inventor that I looked at in the 1800s. And honestly, he was in the engineering world a bigger celebrity than Edison for a long time.
He helped to invent the gyroscope for ships and planes, and he had a great quote. He said, “I invented the gyroscope. I could spend my life making a 5% improvement in the gyroscope or I could spend it going into other industries and making 50% to 100% improvements there. Why would I want to stay here and add a little bit more to this when I can take it to other people who don’t know how to use it yet or haven’t found an application for it?”

Byrne: And that tends to be the mindset of the inventor Who wants to get onto the next thing all the time.

Hargadon: It does. But they don’t care where they got the idea from. It’s like that’s not new but I can use that. I also get the opportunity to show a lot of rock-and-roll videos.

Byrne: How do rock-and-roll videos relate to innovation?

Hargadon: Every great change in rock-and-roll was really just the combination of these different musical genres that came together. The Beatles were skiffle and American rock, but the musicians are honest.

Byrne: Honest about who they steal from?

Hargadon: They called them influences or mentors or idols, but they’ll say, “Well, I picked up this intro to the song from Bach, but I played it with a 12-string Rickenbacker because that’s the sound that George Harrison had and I wanted that sound. And so they’re constantly borrowing from everything they’ve heard.

Byrne: Andrew, I’m sure you studied the three-part Get Back documentary, which a lot of people have talked about in terms of innovation and the art of creation. You see The Beatles’ frustration, the difficulty of making art and something new and then the aha moment when things just click and it’s magical. What’s your takeaway from that documentary?

Hargadon: First off, it’s just wonderful, right? Second, I would say that that’s the creative process.

Byrne: It’s messy.

Hargadon: Yes, it is messy but it’s the creative process. One of the things that I have found in my research, and it’s going to sound obvious once I say it, but that’s the easy part. Trying to sell your manager on letting you work on this, trying to sell a venture capitalist, trying to sell an angel investor, trying to sell a co-founder on, “Hey, I think this could be a business. Why don’t we quit our jobs?”, that’s the hard part. I have a picture of a kitchen table and I say, “Okay, so what has this got to do with innovation?” And honestly, that’s the table around which you have to be able to sit and explain to your significant other, your parent, your co-founder that this is why you’re taking a second mortgage or this is why you’re quitting your job and this is why you believe this is the right thing to do. And people don’t think about that as anything more than the moment you make a decision.

Hargadon: That’s a courageous moment, for sure.

Hargadon: Or it’s a political moment. And if you can’t handle the politics in the company, you can’t get your project funded. So you’ve got that aspect, but there’s a lot of skills associated with innovation that aren’t associated with creativity. And in fact, those are the skills that often get missed until they’re too late. And so Peter Drucker, in fact, had a wonderful comment that I don’t think got nearly the emphasis it should. He talks about innovation as systematizing a solution. Creativity is coming up with a solution, but innovation is turning it into a system. So Ray Kroc didn’t invent the hamburger, but he sure built a pretty good system for making money off of hamburgers.

Byrne: Yes, indeed.

Hargadon: So thinking about how you build a system around your idea is often much more impactful than the idea itself.

Byrne: Andrew, how do you think your intellectual journey has changed you as a person? Has it made you more creative?

Hargadon: I thought I was the creative guy and that’s all I needed to be. It’s like, “Well, just let me come up with a new idea.” And then I realized that’s not how it works. Some of the things that changed for me, for example, were I helped to create the Energy Efficiency Center. What we recognized was an opportunity to bring business and engineering together because energy efficiency isn’t really a bleeding-edge science. We have about 30 years of backlog knowledge that we haven’t gotten full advantage of, so it’s more about getting those ideas into technologies that are supported by policies for the right markets. And that meant systematizing, building a network of people who had the right skills and getting them to come together on a reasonably recurring basis. So then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger opened up our center for us. We have the California Energy Commission and the California Air Resources Board. Major corporations and utilities all needed to be involved because they all needed to be at the table when major technology or policy changes were being made. So it was an opportunity to put my money where my books were and realize that, if you want to be successful, you have to build that network. That becomes a system for processing innovations.

Byrne: I see the connective tissue here between your ideas and your discoveries earlier, that, hey, there are things out there that only need to be brought forward to make innovation happen. You don’t have to invent totally new things because there’s enough stuff going on in the past that hasn’t been fully utilized and leveraged.

Hargadon: Exactly.

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