This website covers topics on knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

How Breakthroughs Happen

I received Andrew Hargadon's How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate six months ago, but have only just now made time to read it.  I'd recommend this book for anyone interested in the general topic of innovation as well as for Hargadon's insights on how people interact and even a few comments about knowledge management.  This book was published in 2003 and has a number of similarities to the more recent The Medici Effect, which I reviewed in February.

The basic premise of the book is that breakthroughs and innovation are not typically the work of the individual.  Rather, mold-breaking changes come about through intertwined networks of people, technology, business and ideas.  Hargadon suggests that Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and many others are not the lone inventors of legend*, but rather are intelligent men who bridged many worlds and were ready to transplant ideas from one place to another.  Hargadon intersperses examples from the last 100+ years of innovation and change throughout his discussion.

Hargadon spends the first half of the book using these historical (and current) examples to explain his thesis that breakthroughs happen via networks.  The biggest aspect of this is getting "prepared minds" to interact the right way to develop the next breakthrough.  Edison did it by bridging multiple worlds in his business operations.  Ford did it by bringing aboard people who understood mechanization from other industries.  Design Continuum does it by purposefully working in a wide variety of industries to do things like come up with the Reebok Pump technology as a hybrid of medical devices and athletic shoes and the supplier businesses with whom they had developed previous relationships.  I was particularly appreciative of the idea that these networks can be more than the people-to-people social networks.  We also build networks around a common idea or technology.  Hargadon give the example of a friend (person-to-person) who always provides excellent recommendations on new music (person-to-idea), based on that friend's love of music and the fact that he keeps up with the latest music discussions.

Given the realization that breakthroughs happen through networks of people, ideas and things, Hargadon uses the second half of the book to suggest organizational structures that appear to be best suited to taking advantage of the network effects.  We remix concepts learned across these varied networks, and to succeed we must build new connections to bring these networks together.  It's not enough to come up with a new idea, we must have the capacity to bring the idea / technology to life.  Large companies can do this internally, or create "skunk works" organizations that do this on the side.  Small companies, obviously, have to be much more focused, but they can participate in many networks by virtue of their relationships with suppliers and customers.  Any organization needs to have those prepared minds, of course. 

In a connection to knowledge management, Hargadon refers to the efforts of many companies to develop KM systems to help them with innovation. 

  • IDEO don't have so much of a formal KM system, but they do have their well-documented "toy box" of interesting things that their people constantly use for idea generation on new projects.  Stuck?  Go to the toy box and think about how a random item might apply to the situation at hand. 
  • If knowledge is a measure of grasp ... wisdom is a measure of grip on a given subject. (paraphrase p. 156)
  • A paradox of knowledge management comes up in his discussion of technology brokering within the firm.  If traditional KM is about getting "the right knowledge to the right people at the right time," Hargadon claims there could be some major negative ramifications to this idea taken to extremes.  The "danger behind most traditional knowledge management efforts is that they might succeed.  Imagine a company where everyone helps everyone else.  Who's doing the work?" (p. 165). 

* Edison himself encouraged the public belief that he was the lone, genius inventor.  However, the description of the main workshop at Menlo Park belies this myth.  He had engineers and scientists all working together at a long bench, sharing ideas and progress all day long.  The inventions were the results of many intelligent people working together.  Where Edison had the advantage was his ability to make the connection from a useful technology in one industry to a useful solution in another industry.

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