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Serious Play: How the World'sBest Companies Simulate to Innovate. Michael Schrage. Harvard Business School Press, 1999.
MoreTeams!Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration. Michael
Schrage. Currency/Doubleday, 1995.
to Whose Basics?" Michael Schrage. Fortune Magazine. 06/25/2001
Engine: The Social Impact of Technology," Michael Schrage. CIO
Magazine, May 2000.
Proto Project," Michael Schrage. Fast Company Issue 24, May 1999.
Poorly? The Solution's a No-Brainer: Just Pop a Smart Pill!"
Michael Schrage. eCompany, April 1999.
for Face Time," Michael Schrage. Fast Company Issue 11, Oct 1997.
When Michael Schrage told a room full of so-called knowledge management gurus at a Napa Valley conference a few years back that knowledge management didn't make a lot of sense, the people sitting around me immediately began grumbling to themselves or shrugging him off as wildly ill-informed. I, on the other hand, sat up straight for the first time all day and thought, "Finally we meet the one person brave or brash enough to ask about the Emperor's new clothes." It wasn't so much that he was asking tough questions but he was challenging us to ask even more of our organizations, our professions, and ourselves than knowledge management's promise could ever provide. Years later he is still challenging with his fiery brand of honest questions, such as why do people really work together, can they actually create something if they are only talking with one another, and what do people need to create real innovation? After hearing him speak in a small venue in Washington DC, I had the chance to interview him about learning, prototyping, and creating something new. Even if you don't agree with him all the time, I encourage you to ignore any impulse you might have to run off. More so than anyone I have learned from recently, I believe Michael Schrage holds a key to making change in a world with far too much talk and far too little action.
Conner: I've done a good bit of work with prototyping and I agree with the thesis of Serious Play, your recent book, which says people have to create simulations if they want to really innovate. What was new for me was the concept of innovating uses "shared spaces." I would welcome a chance to introduce it to our readers.
Schrage: Looking at the arc of my work, if I have a single "Big Idea" it's the idea of shared space and the media that people use to collaborate, invent, and innovate. Shared spaces were at the core of my first book, Shared Minds, which is about collaboration and collaborative relationships. [Editor's note: An updated, revised paperback edition was published as No More Teams! in 1995.] I believed in the cliché that it takes creative individuals to generate creative results.
However, in researching the histories of disciplines like biotech and software development for the book, what I really found at the core of innovation weren't only creative individuals, per se, but rather creative relationships. Intriguingly, the key medium for managing those creative and innovative relationships was the shared space. I found that all collaboration, without exception, requires shared space. Examples abound, such as Wilbur and Orville Wright literally building wind tunnels and collaborating around models and prototypes to build the first aircraft powered by engine, and Watson and Crick building metal models of helixes and not doing, incidentally, a single experiment in the course of discovering the structure of the double helix.
I found in my research for the book that collaboration was grossly underreported in the literature on creativity and design and learning. My key observation was that it takes shared space to create shared understanding. Moreover, the properties of the shared space shape the quality of the collaboration. This is important because the way you collaborate around the shared space of the whiteboard, for example, is different than the way you collaborate around the shared space of a software prototype, or a clay model, or foam model for industrial design.
Conner: What is the learning that takes place? How is that different from, for instance, one person just telling someone something, as opposed to two people working through it together?
Schrage: I address this in the prologue of Serious Play. Consider a conversation. In a diagram, the conversation is represented by a dotted line going back and forth between the sender and receiver. The interaction changes dramatically when you add a shared space. Most of us have had the experience of getting into a friendly discussion over lunch with a friend or colleague, when you pull out a pen and begin writing on a napkin or a piece of paper, and the other person says, "No, no, that's not what I mean." Then they take the pen and paper from you and mark it up to modify what you were saying, and you begin conversing around the images on the paper. If a waiter were to come by and remove that paper, the conversation would go away. You are no longer talking to or with that other person. You are talking with the other person through a medium, a reference point or shared space that becomes like a little capture device, a little reflector of the conversation. It changes the point of reference for what is going on. The shared space fundamentally transforms the dynamics, not just of the representations, but also of the interaction between people. It changes the ecology of the interaction.
Conner: It's not simply that the people have this shared space. It's that the shared space becomes the medium through which they are working.
Schrage: Exactly. If you don't have a shared space, you're not collaborating. You can put out a table, cutlery, and fine china, but if you're not serving food, you don't have a meal.
The environment of the shared space is very interesting. For example, during meetings many organizations use a technographer to take notes and then project them onto a large screen during the meeting. Often the screen, the source of light, becomes the center of attention. Instead of people talking directly to each other, they talk to each other through the screen, reacting to what is put up there. But something very interesting happens if you make the room brighter. The screen moves into the background and people begin to talk with each other again, and the shared space became less prominent. The shared space can be the center of attention or it can be at the periphery of attention. The properties of the shared space change as the context of the environment in which it's used change.
Conner: Using that example, was there a richer experience when the shared space, the screen, was the focal point?
Schrage: That's hard to cavalierly generalize. Those experiences are not easily generalized. If you were literally driving for focusing on getting ideas out, listing, and prioritizing them, you wouldn't mind the screen dominating the conversation. If you're interested in having a conversation and having ideas more subtly captured, so that the conversation is the focus, then it may make sense for the representation of the conversation to be the backdrop rather than the focus.
Conner: In the book you talk about one of my favorite topicsserendipity. Education is so often an exercise in preaching, a discussion of the known instead of the un-known. It's so sad that in a standard training or learning environment we typically only share with others topics and ideas that someone knows (the teacher, theorist, author) instead of providing what students more often need, which is the ability to analyze, understand, grasp, and work with the unknown. We haven't prepared our society for that. Today, in the real world, the issues we are facing are ones that no one knows the answers to.
Schrage: I completely agree. The analogy I use is that most education and training is analogous to teaching people classical music rather than how to improvise. As long as everyone knows the score, both literally and figuratively, then a classical music education is fabulous. However, if you are dealing with unexpected circumstances and contingencies, classical musicians are not the best, as they themselves will acknowledge. I interviewed Gary Burton, the Dean of Curriculum of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a few years ago for Fast Company. Burton said that jazz musicians can be trained as classical musicians, but it's very difficult to train classical musicians to become jazz musicians. Why? Because the ability to regurgitate a skill on demand is not the same as the ability to improvise with a skill-those are fundamentally different learnings. The importance of training people how to model, how to design, how to do things that require improvisational skills rather than merely mimic can't be overstated. Consider the Harvard versus the MIT approach. The Harvard case study approach teaches people to have conversations and improvise around their cases, and to import certain techniques to provide insights into the case. At MIT we take a model-building approach to construct a prototype of the situation and then bring in various mathematical, qualitative and quantitative techniques to solve the problem. Those are different paradigms for problem solving and opportunity creation.
However, interestingly enough, what do they have in common? Both rely on the creation of shared spaces to create shared interaction and shared understanding. It's the essence of science. What's the shared space? It's either a theory with a common language that can be manipulated or changed, or an experiment with a set of assumptions that can be manipulated and tested.
When I use the term 'shared space,' different people understandably have different notions of what the words 'shared' and 'space' mean. My rough shorthand is that the shared aspect relates to the rules of engagement, the sociology, the anthropology, the psychology of human interaction and the space aspect relates to the technology of it. Is it physical space, virtual space, digital space, a computer screen, a blackboard with chalk, a whiteboard with magic markers, a cardboard model, or a computer-aided design engineering model?
Conner: Have you seen specific examples of shared spaces used well in educational areas? Some people may have a hard time getting out of thinking about themselves as the 'sage on the stage,' as someone only responsible for sharing information.
Schrage: Over the last 5-7 years the issues you are raising have become far more important. The danger is that we always set these things up as dichotomies. The issue really is one of curriculum design and what mix of 'sage on the stage' and 'collaborative learning' gives the most bang for the buck, and are they integrated instead of disconnected. Where the style is 'sage on the stage,' we must examine whether the sage presents ideas and insights in a form and manner that can be simulated, prototyped, and modeled in the real world, so that people can have the experiential education to go along with the symbolic education. And that's hard. Curriculum design is hard.
What do people do when things are really hard? They often take the path of least resistance. It's like the high school textbook where the definition of experiential learning becomes answering the three questions at the end of the chapter. The gutsy thing to do is to begin the chapter with the exercises rather than with the information.
Conner: I once led a session at a sales meeting where I began by handing out napkins. I then asked people to watch a demonstration, draw it on their napkin (because that's a skill they typically used to make a sale), and then turn to the person next to them to critique their napkin skills.
Schrage: How did it go over?
Conner: It was a tremendous success.
Schrage: Putting my scientist hat onand I use that term tongue-in-cheekit would be very interesting to observe which portion of the people said, "Don't touch my napkin" versus which portion used the napkin as an invitation to the client to also mark it up. At the MIT Media Lab we demothe lab's motto is "Demo or Die." There is a world of difference between doing a demo that is show and tell and doing a demo that is show and ask. It's the difference between doing something to persuade and propagandize versus what I call an innovation invitation.
You know, when I was in my twenties I thought I had a good idea when I told a respected person about it and they said, "You know, that's a good idea." That was an unsophisticated notion of peer review. My belief now is that you know you have a good idea when you tell somebody about your idea and they respond, "That's a good idea. Have you thought about X, Y, or Z?" That is the essence of a shared space-a platform through which other people can add value or interpret the shared space and help it become more valuable. The best shared spaces are an invitation to innovation. That's a measure; a metric; a heuristic. We see that in innumerable industry examples.
There is not a salesperson in the world who doesn't know he or she is about to close the sale when the customer or the client takes over from them and says, "Oh, I can do this, and I can do this, and…" so the sales person doesn't have to say anything but simply nod and say, "Yes, you can. What's more, we can make modifications so that it can do more of what you want to do."
Conner: When I was conducting a lot of training I used to joke that I could teach anyone anything as long as someone in the room knew something about the subject. I would do the opener but then the people who knew a lot about the subject could challenge each other and the issues. In the end we learned a lot more than any one person could have ever delivered.
Schrage: That is the hybrid between the shared space and the 'sage on the stage.' It's the notion of facilitated interaction. I believe that Michael Doyle's How to Make Meetings Work is really the most powerful example of this. He says sometimes you don't need content facilitators, but rather process facilitators. As long as the facilitator knows a little about the content, then he or she can leverage other people's knowledge.
What's the difference between effective facilitation and an entertaining improvisation? Nothing. But, facilitators are improvisers. They are instruments of the other people in the room. However, one of the errors that Doyle and other people made is that often facilitation is too conversation-driven, and occurs without shared space, without the capture and feedback mechanisms to amplify the effectiveness of the facilitation. But, facilitation is not enough for collaboration; you need to have shared spaces. You need to have media where the ideas can be captured and represented and those representations can be modified and played with. And that's the essence of Serious Play.
I thinkI hopeDoyle would agree. His book is well over 20 years old but it still holds up very well because he understood key aspects about human interaction. However, just as I have my blinders around shared space, he had his blinders around the notion of facilitation, and that hanging stuff up on butcher paper was really the way to go. But that's not it. Here's the difference: you must be able to carry the butcher paper with you back to the office, to the shared space, as these prototypes are your continuity from the realm of playing with ideas to the actual deliverable for the customers. They are the media for managing this entire value creation process. Too often we have the notion of backstage and front-stage. I'm interested in the continuity between what goes on in rehearsal and what goes on in the final performance.
One of the key observations in the book, one that I believe even more strongly now than I did when I wrote it Serious Play is the belief the models are driving our processes and our learning, versus the processes and learning driving the models. The belief that a prototype or model is excreted at the end of an innovation or a learning process and that the process drives the prototype is just not true.
Conner: I am continually stunned at how many people, even in design organizations, resist doing prototypes or simulations. They offer excuses like, "We don't have time," or "That will interfere with what we know."
Schrage: That's exactly why I decided to write Serious Play. Very often the most rational and obvious thing to do, in certain cases, is to build a quick and dirty model and test it to find out what it is you need to learn, or to see how people actually interact. But most people don't do that.
This leads inevitably and inexorably to the conclusion that it is human behavior issues that are fundamentally both the opportunities and the obstacles in managing learning and innovation in organizations. It is not a matter of wiring everybody and connecting everybody to the Internet. It's not a matter of needing better teachers or more information.
Conner: What do you see as the challenges associated with learning, specifically with the intersection of technology, learning, and human behavior?
Schrage: As much as I believe in the politically correct goal of "educating" children, I strongly believe that children are biologically and genetically programmed to be learning machines. Children cannot help but learn.
Therefore, the real challenge is adult education. It's a much harder task for adults to open up to new learning, new behaviors, new design approaches, and new ways of modeling things than it is for a child. Adults are past a lot of that biological stage of being programmed to learn.
So, the real problem in education today is not how we help naturally inquisitive children learn better, but rather, how we help cynical, embittered 38-year-olds learn. That's a much harder challenge. Frankly, I consider it a worthier challenge.
Conner: What are some other key messages you want us to come away with?
Schrage: Shared space, shared understandings are critical. If you don't have a shared space you're not collaborating. One of the tests of a shared space is whether it's an invitation to innovation. Is it creating opportunities for other people to add value?
You have to manage shared space both tactically and strategically. It doesn't work to say, "Here's a shared space, so come play." You must define what you're trying to do with the shared space. Are you trying to use the shared space to create new kinds of interactions and conversations? Are you using the prototype of shared space to manage risk or to create opportunities, to create consensus, or to identify different points of view? Are you using it to see what values people bring, which values to strip away, or what people are concealing as values, or are you trying to use it as a vehicle to accommodate? Does the shared space prototype represent a mechanism to inject compromise or to push the envelope and provoke?
It's a choice. There was a joke in the 1950s Detroit that the definition of a concept car is a car that will never be built. So it's not just a shared space but, rather, what's the mission of the shared space?
Conner: So, the question is, who's the surprise for, the client or for those of us who are building the prototype?
Schrage: Exactly. Who are you trying to surprise? Yourself? Your customers? Your colleagues?
Conner: Thank you for sharing your ideas, and this space, with us.
Michael Schrage writes, consults, and actively participates in the design and deployment of digital innovations. He is co-director of the MIT Media Lab's e-markets initiative. Schrage has contributed to the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Wired, Red Herring, Science, Forbes ASAP, Esquire, and other many other publications. Learn more at the MIT Media Lab site.
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