When Michael Schrage told a room full of so-called knowledge management
gurus at a Napa Valley conference a few years back that knowledge
management didn't make a lot of sense, the people sitting around
me immediately began grumbling to themselves or shrugging him
off as wildly ill-informed. I, on the other hand, sat up straight
for the first time all day and thought, "Finally we meet the one
person brave or brash enough to ask about the Emperor's new clothes."
It wasn't so much that he was asking tough questions but he was
challenging us to ask even more of our organizations, our professions,
and ourselves than knowledge management's promise could ever provide.
Years later he is still challenging with his fiery brand of honest
questions, such as why do people really work together, can they
actually create something if they are only talking with one another,
and what do people need to create real innovation? After hearing
him speak in a small venue in Washington DC, I had the chance
to interview him about learning, prototyping, and creating something
new. Even if you don't agree with him all the time, I encourage
you to ignore any impulse you might have to run off. More so than
anyone I have learned from recently, I believe Michael Schrage
holds a key to making change in a world with far too much talk
and far too little action.
I've done a good bit of work with prototyping and I agree with
the thesis of Serious
Play, your recent book, which says people have to create simulations
if they want to really innovate. What was new for me was the concept
of innovating uses "shared spaces." I would welcome a chance to
introduce it to our readers.
Looking at the arc of my work, if I have a single "Big Idea" it's
the idea of shared space and the media that people use to collaborate,
invent, and innovate. Shared spaces were at the core of my first
book, Shared Minds, which is about collaboration and collaborative
relationships. [Editor's note: An updated, revised paperback edition
was published as No
More Teams! in 1995.] I believed in the cliché that it takes
creative individuals to generate creative results.
in researching the histories of disciplines like biotech and software
development for the book, what I really found at the core of innovation
weren't only creative individuals, per se, but rather creative
relationships. Intriguingly, the key medium for managing those
creative and innovative relationships was the shared space. I
found that all collaboration, without exception, requires shared
space. Examples abound, such as Wilbur and Orville Wright literally
building wind tunnels and collaborating around models and prototypes
to build the first aircraft powered by engine, and Watson and
Crick building metal models of helixes and not doing, incidentally,
a single experiment in the course of discovering the structure
of the double helix.
found in my research for the book that collaboration was grossly
underreported in the literature on creativity and design and learning.
My key observation was that it takes shared space to create shared
understanding. Moreover, the properties of the shared space shape
the quality of the collaboration. This is important because the
way you collaborate around the shared space of the whiteboard,
for example, is different than the way you collaborate around
the shared space of a software prototype, or a clay model, or
foam model for industrial design.
What is the learning that takes place? How is that different from,
for instance, one person just telling someone something, as opposed
to two people working through it together?
I address this in the prologue of Serious Play. Consider
a conversation. In a diagram, the conversation is represented
by a dotted line going back and forth between the sender and receiver.
The interaction changes dramatically when you add a shared space.
Most of us have had the experience of getting into a friendly
discussion over lunch with a friend or colleague, when you pull
out a pen and begin writing on a napkin or a piece of paper, and
the other person says, "No, no, that's not what I mean." Then
they take the pen and paper from you and mark it up to modify
what you were saying, and you begin conversing around the images
on the paper. If a waiter were to come by and remove that paper,
the conversation would go away. You are no longer talking to or
with that other person. You are talking with the other person
through a medium, a reference point or shared space that becomes
like a little capture device, a little reflector of the conversation.
It changes the point of reference for what is going on. The shared
space fundamentally transforms the dynamics, not just of the representations,
but also of the interaction between people. It changes the ecology
of the interaction.
It's not simply that the people have this shared space. It's that
the shared space becomes the medium through which they are working.
Exactly. If you don't have a shared space, you're not collaborating.
You can put out a table, cutlery, and fine china, but if you're
not serving food, you don't have a meal.
environment of the shared space is very interesting. For example,
during meetings many organizations use a technographer to take
notes and then project them onto a large screen during the meeting.
Often the screen, the source of light, becomes the center of attention.
Instead of people talking directly to each other, they talk to
each other through the screen, reacting to what is put up there.
But something very interesting happens if you make the room brighter.
The screen moves into the background and people begin to talk
with each other again, and the shared space became less prominent.
The shared space can be the center of attention or it can be at
the periphery of attention. The properties of the shared space
change as the context of the environment in which it's used change.
Conner: Using that example, was there a richer experience
when the shared space, the screen, was the focal point?
That's hard to cavalierly generalize. Those experiences are not
easily generalized. If you were literally driving for focusing
on getting ideas out, listing, and prioritizing them, you wouldn't
mind the screen dominating the conversation. If you're interested
in having a conversation and having ideas more subtly captured,
so that the conversation is the focus, then it may make sense
for the representation of the conversation to be the backdrop
rather than the focus.
In the book you talk about one of my favorite topicsserendipity.
Education is so often an exercise in preaching, a discussion of
the known instead of the un-known. It's so sad that in a standard
training or learning environment we typically only share with
others topics and ideas that someone knows (the teacher, theorist,
author) instead of providing what students more often need, which
is the ability to analyze, understand, grasp, and work with the
unknown. We haven't prepared our society for that. Today, in the
real world, the issues we are facing are ones that no one knows
the answers to.
I completely agree. The analogy I use is that most education and
training is analogous to teaching people classical music rather
than how to improvise. As long as everyone knows the score, both
literally and figuratively, then a classical music education is
fabulous. However, if you are dealing with unexpected circumstances
and contingencies, classical musicians are not the best, as they
themselves will acknowledge. I interviewed Gary
Burton, the Dean of Curriculum of the Berklee College of Music
in Boston, a few years ago for Fast Company. Burton said that
jazz musicians can be trained as classical musicians, but it's
very difficult to train classical musicians to become jazz musicians.
Why? Because the ability to regurgitate a skill on demand is not
the same as the ability to improvise with a skill-those are fundamentally
different learnings. The importance of training people how to
model, how to design, how to do things that require improvisational
skills rather than merely mimic can't be overstated. Consider
the Harvard versus the MIT approach. The Harvard case study approach
teaches people to have conversations and improvise around their
cases, and to import certain techniques to provide insights into
the case. At MIT we take a model-building approach to construct
a prototype of the situation and then bring in various mathematical,
qualitative and quantitative techniques to solve the problem.
Those are different paradigms for problem solving and opportunity
interestingly enough, what do they have in common? Both rely on
the creation of shared spaces to create shared interaction and
shared understanding. It's the essence of science. What's the
shared space? It's either a theory with a common language that
can be manipulated or changed, or an experiment with a set of
assumptions that can be manipulated and tested.
I use the term 'shared space,' different people understandably
have different notions of what the words 'shared' and 'space'
mean. My rough shorthand is that the shared aspect relates to
the rules of engagement, the sociology, the anthropology, the
psychology of human interaction and the space aspect relates to
the technology of it. Is it physical space, virtual space, digital
space, a computer screen, a blackboard with chalk, a whiteboard
with magic markers, a cardboard model, or a computer-aided design
Have you seen specific examples of shared spaces used well in
educational areas? Some people may have a hard time getting out
of thinking about themselves as the 'sage on the stage,' as someone
only responsible for sharing information.
Over the last 5-7 years the issues you are raising have become
far more important. The danger is that we always set these things
up as dichotomies. The issue really is one of curriculum design
and what mix of 'sage on the stage' and 'collaborative learning'
gives the most bang for the buck, and are they integrated instead
of disconnected. Where the style is 'sage on the stage,' we must
examine whether the sage presents ideas and insights in a form
and manner that can be simulated, prototyped, and modeled in the
real world, so that people can have the experiential education
to go along with the symbolic education. And that's hard. Curriculum
design is hard.
do people do when things are really hard? They often take the
path of least resistance. It's like the high school textbook where
the definition of experiential learning becomes answering the
three questions at the end of the chapter. The gutsy thing to
do is to begin the chapter with the exercises rather than with
I once led a session at a sales meeting where I began by handing
out napkins. I then asked people to watch a demonstration, draw
it on their napkin (because that's a skill they typically used
to make a sale), and then turn to the person next to them to critique
their napkin skills.
How did it go over?
It was a tremendous success.
Putting my scientist hat onand I use that term tongue-in-cheekit
would be very interesting to observe which portion of the people
said, "Don't touch my napkin" versus which portion used the napkin
as an invitation to the client to also mark it up. At the MIT
Media Lab we demothe lab's motto is "Demo or Die." There
is a world of difference between doing a demo that is show and
tell and doing a demo that is show and ask. It's the difference
between doing something to persuade and propagandize versus what
I call an innovation invitation.
know, when I was in my twenties I thought I had a good idea when
I told a respected person about it and they said, "You know, that's
a good idea." That was an unsophisticated notion of peer review.
My belief now is that you know you have a good idea when you tell
somebody about your idea and they respond, "That's a good idea.
Have you thought about X, Y, or Z?" That is the essence of a shared
space-a platform through which other people can add value or interpret
the shared space and help it become more valuable. The best shared
spaces are an invitation to innovation. That's a measure; a metric;
a heuristic. We see that in innumerable industry examples.
is not a salesperson in the world who doesn't know he or she is
about to close the sale when the customer or the client takes
over from them and says, "Oh, I can do this, and I can do this,
and…" so the sales person doesn't have to say anything but simply
nod and say, "Yes, you can. What's more, we can make modifications
so that it can do more of what you want to do."
When I was conducting a lot of training I used to joke that I
could teach anyone anything as long as someone in the room knew
something about the subject. I would do the opener but then the
people who knew a lot about the subject could challenge each other
and the issues. In the end we learned a lot more than any one
person could have ever delivered.
That is the hybrid between the shared space and the 'sage on the
stage.' It's the notion of facilitated interaction. I believe
that Michael Doyle's How
to Make Meetings Work is really the most powerful example
of this. He says sometimes you don't need content facilitators,
but rather process facilitators. As long as the facilitator knows
a little about the content, then he or she can leverage other
the difference between effective facilitation and an entertaining
improvisation? Nothing. But, facilitators are improvisers. They
are instruments of the other people in the room. However, one
of the errors that Doyle and other people made is that often facilitation
is too conversation-driven, and occurs without shared space, without
the capture and feedback mechanisms to amplify the effectiveness
of the facilitation. But, facilitation is not enough for collaboration;
you need to have shared spaces. You need to have media where the
ideas can be captured and represented and those representations
can be modified and played with. And that's the essence of Serious
thinkI hopeDoyle would agree. His book is well over
20 years old but it still holds up very well because he understood
key aspects about human interaction. However, just as I have my
blinders around shared space, he had his blinders around the notion
of facilitation, and that hanging stuff up on butcher paper was
really the way to go. But that's not it. Here's the difference:
you must be able to carry the butcher paper with you back to the
office, to the shared space, as these prototypes are your continuity
from the realm of playing with ideas to the actual deliverable
for the customers. They are the media for managing this entire
value creation process. Too often we have the notion of backstage
and front-stage. I'm interested in the continuity between what
goes on in rehearsal and what goes on in the final performance.
One of the key observations in the book, one that I believe even
more strongly now than I did when I wrote it Serious Play is the
belief the models are driving our processes and our learning,
versus the processes and learning driving the models. The belief
that a prototype or model is excreted at the end of an innovation
or a learning process and that the process drives the prototype
is just not true.
I am continually stunned at how many people, even in design organizations,
resist doing prototypes or simulations. They offer excuses like,
"We don't have time," or "That will interfere with what we know."
That's exactly why I decided to write Serious Play. Very
often the most rational and obvious thing to do, in certain cases,
is to build a quick and dirty model and test it to find out what
it is you need to learn, or to see how people actually interact.
But most people don't do that.
leads inevitably and inexorably to the conclusion that it is human
behavior issues that are fundamentally both the opportunities
and the obstacles in managing learning and innovation in organizations.
It is not a matter of wiring everybody and connecting everybody
to the Internet. It's not a matter of needing better teachers
or more information.
What do you see as the challenges associated with learning, specifically
with the intersection of technology, learning, and human behavior?
As much as I believe in the politically correct goal of "educating"
children, I strongly believe that children are biologically and
genetically programmed to be learning machines. Children cannot
help but learn.
Therefore, the real challenge is adult education. It's a much
harder task for adults to open up to new learning, new behaviors,
new design approaches, and new ways of modeling things than it
is for a child. Adults are past a lot of that biological stage
of being programmed to learn.
the real problem in education today is not how we help naturally
inquisitive children learn better, but rather, how we help cynical,
embittered 38-year-olds learn. That's a much harder challenge.
Frankly, I consider it a worthier challenge.
What are some other key messages you want us to come away with?
Shared space, shared understandings are critical. If you don't
have a shared space you're not collaborating. One of the tests
of a shared space is whether it's an invitation to innovation.
Is it creating opportunities for other people to add value?
have to manage shared space both tactically and strategically.
It doesn't work to say, "Here's a shared space, so come play."
You must define what you're trying to do with the shared space.
Are you trying to use the shared space to create new kinds of
interactions and conversations? Are you using the prototype of
shared space to manage risk or to create opportunities, to create
consensus, or to identify different points of view? Are you using
it to see what values people bring, which values to strip away,
or what people are concealing as values, or are you trying to
use it as a vehicle to accommodate? Does the shared space prototype
represent a mechanism to inject compromise or to push the envelope
It's a choice. There was a joke in the 1950s Detroit that the
definition of a concept car is a car that will never be built.
So it's not just a shared space but, rather, what's the mission
of the shared space?
So, the question is, who's the surprise for, the client or for
those of us who are building the prototype?
Exactly. Who are you trying to surprise? Yourself? Your customers?
Conner: Thank you for sharing your ideas, and this space,
Schrage writes, consults, and actively participates in the design
and deployment of digital innovations. He is co-director of the
MIT Media Lab's e-markets initiative. Schrage has contributed
to the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fast
Company, Wired, Red Herring, Science, Forbes ASAP, Esquire, and
other many other publications. Learn more at the MIT
Media Lab site.
Conner is Editor-in-Chief of LiNE Zine, and CEO of the Learnativity
Alliance. If you have something brash or bold to say, write
her at email@example.com.
Copyright (c) 2000-2004 LiNE Zine (www.linezine.com)