When I’m asked to enumerate best practices for idea management or group decision-making or team-building or any activity that involves people trying to do something as a group, somewhere on my list is the practice of making sure that somebody (or somebodies) is an observer. In idea management, which typically occurs on-line using some kind of collaboration software, that somebody is called the moderator. For in-person groups (or mostly in-person – sometimes people are connected via video conference, but they see one another and interact in real-time) the term of art is facilitator. While everyone acknowledges that this role is important, in idea management it often goes to a more junior person or an administrative type; i.e., it’s important, but not that important. For in-person groups, the facilitator is often a more experienced (i.e., “older” person or someone who has had group facilitation training). However, facilitators are rarely required to understand the content of the discussions or decisions that the group makes. They are expected to guide a process. The same holds true for on-line moderators.
However, when observers, whether facilitators or moderators, lack familiarity with the substance of the group’s discussions and decisions – not expertise, but just enough understanding to be dangerous – I believe that the group markedly diminishes its potential for innovation, the truly different way of figuring out how to move forward or solve a very persistent, complex problem. I believe that groups need curious observers. Curious observers play an essential role in discovery – the pivotal moment in all innovation that is perhaps the true “Eureka” moment. Because creating something and recognizing that it might be important in some way rarely occur at the same time. In our idealization of innovation, we tell stories that merge creators and discoverers into one person who has one blinding flash of insight. But more often than not, there are many insights along the way some of which are discovered by curious observers.
Case in point from a story about fungus from a recent New Yorker magazine(1). Mushroom fungus or polypore mycelium to be specific. (Stay with me on this one!)
Two seniors at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) were beavering away at a class project for an Inventors Studio class, which is exactly what it sounds like – a class devoted to guiding students in the process of invention with the long shot hope that their ideas might form the basis of a company that will bring innovative solutions into the market. These two seniors, Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer, were casting about for an idea that their very exacting professor, Burt Swersey, would approve for their project. They had pitched a few ideas to Swersey to no avail. Then, Bayer recalled an experiment that he had performed in another class at RPI responding to the challenge of making insulation out of perlite. Most of us know perlite as the little white plastic-like pellets that are mixed in with bagged potting soil. We also know how annoying those little pellets can be – they are lightweight and float around, settling in puffy clumps, making a mess. In his RPI class, Bayer had used mushroom spores to bind the perlite.
As a kid growing up on a farm where his dad made maple syrup and sold it commercially, Bayer had had a lot of chores to do outdoors. One of his chores was to shovel wood chips from a pile to a burner that boiled the sap. He had often noticed that the wood chip pile sprouted mushrooms whose mycelium bound the chips so tightly together that he found it difficult sometimes to shovel them. He had remembered that binding property during his class project to create perlite insulation. He brought the results of that project – a glass jar of solid perlite and mycelium – to Swersey’s class.
Here’s what happened according to Swersey:
“He takes this thing out of his pocket…and it’s white, this amazing piece of insulation that had been grown, without hydrocarbons, with almost no energy used. The stuff could be made with almost any waste materials – rice husks, cotton wastes, stuff farmers throw away, stuff they have no market for – and it wouldn’t take away from anybody’s food supply, and it could be made anywhere from local materials, so you could cut down on transportation costs. And it would be completely biodegradable! What more could you want?”
The rest of the story about Evocative Design, McIntyre and Bayer’s company that produces packaging material out of mushroom fungus, is quite an amazing read and I recommend it. But what stood out for me in the story is that without Swersey it is unlikely that the company and its subsequent success would have happened. McIntyre and Bayer both had jobs lined up after RPI – good jobs. Swersey urged them to forgo these jobs and continue developing their invention. They thought they might be able to work on their invention on an after-work-hours basis, but Swersey emphatically told them this would not be enough. He offered to take money from his retirement savings to invest in their company. He helped them get a grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and got them situated in RPI’s incubator space for start-ups.
Swersey, a curious observer, was an essential part of the discovery process. Neither McIntyre nor Bayer on their own had the perspective to recognize the potential of what Bayer had initially created and what they both further developed in Swersey’s class. Bayer’s flash of insight was based on an idle observation made years earlier in passing. From his point of view at the time, using mycelium to bind perlite was a one-off to complete a class requirement. Bayer threw a “Hail Mary” pass when he brought the idea to Swersey’s class to see if it would pass muster there.
Swersey, while not an expert in mycology or insulating materials engineering, did however operate with a framework that enabled him to see the potential in Bayer and McIntyre’s invention. His “Eureka” moment was every bit as necessary as Bayer’s in this story of invention and innovation. Inventor’s Studio is the search for ruthlessly affordable solutions(2) to existing problems that can make a discernible difference in the lives of the vast majority of people on the planet who live on less than $1 a day. This framework is incredibly clear – expansive and targeted at the same time. Without it, Bayer’s little while disk of perlite and mycelium, would still be an interesting curiosity rather than a biodegradable packaging material which is used by companies like Dell, Crate and Barrel, and Steelcase, and who knows what else in the future.
Without a curious observer to hold this kind of framework in place for groups as they work to solve problems, the connection between creativity and discovery often fails to take place. This is especially true for groups of experts who have even more to overcome than naïve amateurs like the students in Swersey’s class. As their professor, Swersey’s students expected his observations and input to matter, whether or not he was an expert in their project’s specific materials or engineering. Experts, on the other hand, view their facilitator or moderator as someone who is supposed to keep them on time and on task but has little else to contribute to problem solving. And, most facilitators and moderators buy in to this definition of their role. However, when facilitators and moderators are also curious observers, they can help the experts overcome the limitations of expertise. They can call attention to the contrary point of view that groups are quick to dismiss and encourage its exploration. Curious observers can ask questions and offer potential solutions that might be foolish or wrong, essentially acting as a naïve amateur, to challenge a group’s assumptions that often masquerade as facts. The curious observer can catalyze the moment of discovery which grasps the potential in an invention, whether a thing or an idea, and become an integral participant in the process of innovation.
(1) “Form and Fungus,” Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, May 20, 2013
(2) Designing for ruthless affordability is a concept from the work of Paul Polak.