Innovation: Are You a Gardener or an Architect?

Innovation: Are You a Gardener or an Architect?When you’re doing something new, do you plan it out in advance, or start in and see what emerges?

Those are the two approaches that George R.R. Martin describes as common for writers. In an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald (h/t 99u), he says:

“There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener. In my Hollywood years when everything does work on outlines, I had to put on my architect’s clothes and pretend to be an architect. But my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.”

I think that the same idea applies to innovation. There are people that work hard at building a good structure to support innovation. Jeffrey Phillips and Paul Hobcraft are two examples of this  – at least I think so, they might debate the classification! Innovation gardeners are more likely to try stuff out and see what works – I’d say that Jorge Barba and I both fall more into this camp.

Innovation: Are You a Gardener or an Architect?

My sophisticated approach to gardening

It seems pretty straightforward, right? Either you plan things out in advance and then work to the plan, or you try stuff out and see what emerges.

But, like all dichotomies, this is a false one. It’s a false dichotomy for innovation, and I suspect that it is for writing as well.

Innovation is filled with tensions between goals that seem to be opposites. Roger Martin says that we need to use integrative thinking to resolve these tensions:

“Integrative Thinking is the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative solution of the tensions in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each.”

These aren’t either/or choices – they are both/and decisions.

Here are three actions that you can take in response to this:

1. Avoid the comfort of black and white thinking. The comments on the posts discussing Martin’s quote consist of things like “architects are great, that’s the only way to write.” Of something similar in favour of gardeners. But doing new things means that it is never black or white – things are always grey. We have to learn to be comfortable with both ends of a spectrum, and accommodate both. We need to explore for new ideas while at the same time we exploit the advantages from the great ideas that we executed earlier. These require different skills, and it’s easiest in the short run to choose one or the other. But to succeed over the long run, we need to do both.

2. Become a gardening architect. I tend towards the gardening side – this was very obvious this afternoon when I was outlining a book chapter. That’s architect’s work, and I’m not so good at it. But I need both skills. So do you. Figure out which approach you’re more comfortable with, and then develop a strategy for getting both skills into your process.

3. Collaborate to address your weakness. You don’t necessarily need to have both skills yourself – innovation is a social game. But you have to think about how you build your alliances. It’s easiest to collaborate with people that are most like us – so architects will be drawn to work with other architects, and the same for gardeners. But the key to innovation success is to have cognitive diversity. Nilofer Merchant wrote an excellent post on this idea – and quoted Scoot Page, who said the value of diversity is a proven mathematical truth, not a feel good mantra. If you’re an architect, the best way to become a gardening architect is to find a gardener to work with.

I love Martin’s metaphor – it feels right to me. I can see both ways of writing, and of innovating. But I also think that while it makes a great soundbite, the reality is a bit messier.

We need to find ways to integrate apparently conflicting ideas. This is a key innovation skill.

While you start thinking about how to build this skill, I’m going to go hack around some more with that outline, to see what emerges from it…

image credit: innovate image from bigstock

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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.