Problem-finding on the Path from Invention to Adoption

The intersection of two key dimensions of how we think offers an interesting insight into the path from new idea to successful innovation. Alan Kay discusses them in a talk he gave last year at Demo 2014 called “The Future Doesn’t Have to Be Incremental.” It’s an excellent use of your time, if you’re prepared to think about what Alan is saying. Alan can be a deep and a dense thinker; he’s the kind of teacher where it might take days or weeks before the argument he is making hits you with its full force. This is our problem as the student; not Alan’s as teacher. Consider yourself warned as well as encouraged. The payoff is worth the effort.

If you want to skip to the part of the video I want to examine today, go to the 18-minute mark. The first dimension he addresses is how we respond to new ideas or tools when they appear. Most of us (95% per Alan) respond to a new idea or tool in an instrumental way; we evaluate the idea in terms of how it might advance our current agenda. Our default response is WIIFM—what’s in it for me? One in twenty of us, however, asks a more generative question—should I revise my agenda based on this new idea? This difference in attitude is essential to invention.

Another way to characterize this is whether someone reacts to a new idea in a closed or an open way. A closed response to a new idea treats the idea in terms of how it advances an existing agenda or goal, while an open response maps to Kay’s notion of reacting to a new idea in terms of how it might modify, reshape, or obsolete a current agenda. While WIIFM may be the question in either case, the shift in stance is important.

The second dimension Alan explores is that of extraversion/introversion. I find it more helpful to think of this dimension as your compass; is it social or personal? Do you look to the group for your primary source of direction or do you look inwardly. Again, more than 80% of us take our cues from the group. We are, after all, social animals.

Taken together, we get the following diagram, which I’ve scaled to reflect the general 80/20 proportions at work:


These dimensions aren’t completely orthogonal, but they do set up an interesting set of questions about invention and innovation. Work gets done by the grand majority of people who are tuned into the social matrix and see new ideas in terms of how they can advance existing agendas. At the opposite end of the diagonal, new ideas are generated by the few percent who don’t pay much attention to the social matrix and are on the prowl for truly new ideas.

The challenge is that you need both groups to collaborate to generate big innovations. This collaboration is hard because the mindsets are so different from one another. The greater burden, I suspect, lies with the inventors (broadly writ). They are the ones who must walk their thinking back from what might be to what can be done now and set a path forward that avoids the temptations to settle for the incremental.

This is a leadership task. And not simply a visionary exercise in painting the future in an attractive and compelling way. It depends on some ability to anticipate key forks in the path and to recognize the risks of alluring junctions that lead to the incremental rather than the transformative. Essentially the leadership task here is one of problem-finding and problem-framing; it is about directing the problem-solving capacities of the organization toward a future that is not simply a straight line projection of the present.

Using Moore’s Law in Reverse: Alan Kay on Invention vs. Innovation

I’m an unapologetic fanboy of Alan Kay. This can be problematic given that the average person has no idea who Alan is even though they benefit from his work on a daily basis.

Earlier this year, Alan presented at the Demo 2014 conference, offering his reflections and insights on the relationship between invention and innovation. It’s about 45 minutes in total and well worth the investment of time and attention.

Although Alan doesn’t say so explicitly, he suggests that we have become so enamored of innovation that we are systematically neglecting invention. If you spend time reflecting on Alan’s observations you get real insight into the difference between strategic and tactical thinking.

Alan Kay on innovation and risk

Here’s a pointer to an excellent interview with Alan Kay. As always, Alan shares some deep insights about technology innovation and the willingness to take on risk (he’s not confident in the ability of most organizations to tolerate risk no matter how small the level of funding involved).

Anyone with an interest in the continuing role and development of Smalltalk has had lots to chew on over the past few days.

As part of a series of investigations into the most widely-used programming languages, Computerworld Australia has published a conversation with Alan Kay about his role in the development of the foundation of much of modern programming today: Smalltalk-80 , Object-Oriented Programming, and modern software development.

The Weekly Squeak: Smalltalk: the past, the present, and the future?
Michael Davies
Thu, 15 Jul 2010 10:00:45 GMT

Here’s a sample of Alan’s thinking :

What are the hurdles to those leaps in personal computing technology and concepts? Are companies attempting to redefine existing concepts or are they simply innovating too slowly?

It s largely about the enormous difference between News and New to human minds. Marketing people really want News (= a little difference to perk up attention, but on something completely understandable and incremental). This allows News to be told in a minute or two, yet is interesting to humans. New means invisible not immediately comprehensible , etc.

So New is often rejected outright, or is accepted only by denaturing it into News . For example, the big deal about computers is their programmability, and the big deal about that is meta .

For the public, the News made out of the first is to simply simulate old media they are already familiar with and make it a little more convenient on some dimensions and often making it less convenient in ones they don t care about (such as the poorer readability of text on a screen, especially for good readers).

For most computer people, the News that has been made out of New eliminates most meta from the way they go about designing and programming.

One way to look at this is that we are genetically much better set up to cope than to learn. So familiar-plus-pain is acceptable to most people.

[ComputerWorld Australia]

Alan can occasionally be a bit cryptic, but that’s because he assumes that you will do your share of the thinking when you listen to what he has to say.

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