Monkey Innovation

Monkey InnovationI had not intended to establish a menagerie of innovation (see my recent posting – “Innovate like a Squirrel”) but I stumbled across a fascinating Chinese myth that carries interesting implications for innovators.

Sarah Rose’s For All the Tea in China tells the story of the Englishman Robert Fortune, who engaged in an early form of intellectual property theft in the mid-nineteenth century by journeying to China to obtain tea plants and seeds to transport to Indian farms to break the Chinese monopoly on tea production.

During one of his last trips in search of tea plants, Fortune ventured to the Wuyi mountains in the Fujian Province in search of the Da Hong Pao, or Big Red Robe, tea, said to be among the best and most expensive tea in all of China. These tea shoots sell for a price of several thousands dollars per ounce, thus making them more expensive than gold. The Da Hong Pao grows in highly inaccessible portions of the mountains, which posed a problem for locals seeking to harvest the delicate tea shoots from the plant. Fortune heard a myth that the locals believed that the tea was at its best when not picked by humans, so rather than sending people up the treacherous slopes to pick the shoots from the plants, the locals devised an innovative solution to the problem.

The hills were alive with numerous monkeys who easily maneuvered across the slopes so, according to local lore, when the harvest time arrived the locals would throw rocks at the monkeys. The monkeys would retaliate by grabbing whatever objects were available within reach and hurling them back at the humans. As it turns out, the monkeys’ small hands were well-suited to the careful task of plucking just the right amount of leaves and shoots from the tea plant and hurling it down at their attackers. Given the prevalence of tea plants on the slopes of the Wuyi, the locals would soon be able to fill their harvest baskets with ample supplies of the precious Da Hong Pao tea leaves.

To explore the innovation implications of this myth, I imagine myself as the innovation consultant brought in to work with the locals to solve the problem of how to obtain the Da Hong Pao leaves from the cliffs of the Wuyi mountains. Burdened by the thought patterns of a mind familiar with 21st century technological capabilities, the innovation workshop I would lead would focus on building elaborate, lightweight scaffolding made of high strength plastic or aluminum on the mountainside to facilitate human picking of the leaves or designing a tractor with a long and agile mechanical picking arm with laser positioning to ensure the grappling device cuts the tea shoots in precisely the right location. While both these solutions would probably work, they would be expensive and pale in comparison to the simplicity of the monkey myth. The intriguing element of this exercise to me is trying to imagine how to facilitate the type of discussion that could lead to the suggestion of a local workshop participant that perhaps would lead one of them to blurt out the idea “what if we throw rocks at the monkeys so they will throw the tea shoots back at us?”

Monkey Innovation

Would the right process be one that looks at all the attributes of the mountainside to identify the monkeys as ubiquitous in the area and thus warrant consideration as part of the solution? Would we spend time thinking about the delicate process of picking the tea shoots and note that monkey hands are small and delicate? Or would we rely on the combining of serendipitous observations made by two locals about monkeys: 1 – they like to grab tea shoots, and 2 – if you throw a rock at a monkey they usually throw something nearby back at you. This latter scenario seems plausible, as both are likely observations that locals could make in their daily interactions with monkeys. As a facilitator, I would try to think about the kinds of questions that would elicit this information from workshop participants. One idea would be that we should not limit ourselves in innovation workshops to thinking statically about solutions.

Rather, we should think dynamically and consider the process of action-reaction in assessing new ideas and approaches to solving problems. The easiest analogy is a chess match, in which one move sets the stage for a future move. In other words, we should not limit ourselves to static steps in obtaining the tea shoots from the mountainside (build platform, get leaves). Rather, we should consider dynamic solutions in which we consider responses from actors within the process (throw rock, anger monkey, monkey returns fire).

Another way of looking at this problem comes from Rose’s observation about gardening.  Writing about Fortune’s early work tending London’s Chelsea Physic Gardens before his surreptitious mission to China, Rose notes that a gardener:

[w]orks in a three-dimensional world, taking into account the relative heights of trees and depths of borders, the slopes of a hillside, and the views to be “borrowed” or enhanced. But he works in a fourth dimension as well: time. A gardener plants for seasons: which trees will bloom in spring […] and which will reach their peak of color in autumn […].

What struck me about Rose’s commentary on the gardener as artist was the idea of working in a fourth dimension, and the importance of considering the dimension of time in our innovation work, as an idea that may not be well-suited for pursuit at the present may become something more powerful at the convergence of other events at a later date. As innovation practitioners, we should approach idea generation or problem-solving without the constraints of static assessment (i.e., we should consider action-reaction in our approaches) and, likewise, we should think about the fourth dimension of time in our assessment of innovation potential.

Source: Sarah Rose, For All the Tea in China (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), pp. 37-38, 164-168. image credit: natgeo

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.