On Siloed Thinking
Over time, scientists havetested and questiOned the implicatiOns Of everything
from cell phone use and cancer to the safe consumption of red wine and even breast milk. re-
member when scientists determined that caffeine was bad for you? shortly thereafter, they reversed
their position, giving us permission to drink coffee. the latest comes from Psychology Today, in which
srikumar rao waxes poetic on “Why positive thinking is Bad foryou.”
in our complex world of technology and risk management, we’ve been admonished in similar
fashion on a host of well-established it and business practices.the latest counsel comes from two
operations and information management professors from the Wharton school, university of penn-
sylvania, who argue that group dynamics are the enemy of businesses trying to develop one-of-a-
kind new products. in other words, siloed thinking is back.
christian terwiesch, Karl ulrich and co-author Karan girotra, a professor of technology and
operations management at insead graduate business school, newyork, published a paper that dis-
misses brainstorming sessions as an effective means to an innovative end.the researchers examine
two creative problem-solving processes—one in which a group works together (team process),
and one in which individuals first work alone and then together (hybrid process).
in “idea generation and the quality of the Best idea,” the authors found that the frequently
recommended brainstorming technique of building on each other’s ideas is counter-productive;
“teams exhibiting such build-up neither create more ideas nor are the ideas that build on previous
ideas better,” they said.
tell that to Bill gates, who in 1973 hooked up with paul allen to work in Basic and, well, you
know the rest. Or to steve Jobs, who teamed with steve Wozniak, mike markkula and others in
1976 to develop and sell “personal computers” assembled in Jobs’ garage.
What the Wharton authors don’t say is that when several people sit together to brainstorm, the
body politic is at work, fueling the excitement of competition and the pressure to perform. While
rejecting the “group think” that arises out of autocratic management, the fact is: true innovation
simply doesn’t occur in a vacuum.
consider los angeles-based farmers, a wholly owned subsidiary of Zurich financial services,
whose ideapoint initiative—which takes organized brainstorming to an enterprise level, delivering
technology, process, and insurance product and service innovation results—earned the company
the 2009 Insurance Networking News’ innovators of theyear award.
farmers’ plan for 2010? a “technology innovation ideation” ideapoint that, throughout the
organization, gathers smart people together to vet and develop new ideas not just from within the
industry, but from other industries—ideas that could be leveraged and adapted for insurance.
so, pour yourself a cup of coffee, or if it’s 5 o’clock (it is somewhere), a glass of wine, and think
about the ways you can leverage your smartest employees’ collective ideas to a positive end.
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