Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Deep Knowledge

In the 1968 Olympics, Dick Fosbury would forever change the sport of high-jump. There he won the gold medal using an unheard-of approach: falling backward over the bar. Prior to Fosbury, virtually all high-jumpers launched face-first, rolling forward over the bar in the air. But Fosbury, age 21 at the time of the Olympics, had since his high-school days been experimenting with a back-first approach. Those years of experimentation finally paid off with the gold medal, after which his "Fosbury Flop" would become the standard approach to the sport.

Fosbury's innovation was the result of "deep knowledge," an understanding of a domain so complete that it can only be gained through a significant investment of time and focused effort.

Many times innovations come from those who have deep knowledge in a particular domain.

Consider Martin McVicar. He invented the swiveling forklift, a product that his Irish company ships today to companies all over the world. McVicar's innovation was possible because he spent decades working with forklifts in tight spaces, experience that helped him come to know the use of the forklift inside out.

Or take Orlando Vargas, who developed an industrial soap made from cactus, which today is sold to businesses all over Mexico. In his case, a degree in chemical engineering gave Vargas the perspective needed to see the possibilities for using cactus when he moved to cactus-rich Baja California Sur from his native Colombia in 2005.

And examples abound if you consider innovations in science and technology. Philosophers of science, particularly Lakatos, argue that scientific progress proceeds through research programs - with knowledge building cumulatively over time.

You're thinking "Barnett says know your stuff." Common Sense. But not so. These days the popular view is just the opposite. Broad knowledge is all the rage, the idea being that by combining knowledge from unrelated worlds we come up with great innovations. The case for broad knowledge is compelling, and the evidence supports the value of broad knowledge (see the work of Lee Fleming). But broad knowledge comes at a price, and its popularity has caused many to underestimate the value of deep knowledge.

When we fully absorb ourselves in a particular domain, investing the years of focus needed to gain deep knowledge, we forgo breadth. But in return we come to know the nuances and background ideas that can help us recognize patterns when they appear - to see opportunities that the dilettante would overlook.

So, yes, know your stuff. But by that, I mean immerse yourself in your area of specialization. Be authentic to your context. See the possibilities that the fair-weather innovators will miss.


For evidence on the importance of deep knowledge among innovating firms, see my paper on the subject.

Monday, May 15, 2017

On Behalf of Sprezzatura

It was in June back in 1991 - my first day of work at Stanford. My wife dropped me off, since I did not have a car and had my golf clubs, wanting to try out the Stanford Golf Course after work. As I walked up the parking lot toward the Business School, it hit me how bad this looked. The new guy shows up carrying his golf clubs. What kind of work ethic is that?

What to do? Looking about, I noticed some handy bushes where I could stash the clubs. They'd be ok until I got out of work. But it was too late. Up ahead the dean was approaching! Mike Spence, the famous economist and our dean at the time (who, in a few years, would win the Nobel prize), was walking straight at me coming out of the school.

I put my head down and kept walking, figuring that I looked young; maybe he'd just think I was a student. But it was not to be. "Bill!" he said, looking straight at me. "This must be your first day at work! Welcome!"

I tried to look as professional as possible, but I was carrying a set of golf clubs. Mr. Busy? Not! "Yes, Mike. Great to be here."

"And you brought your clubs!" he observed. "What a great day. I'm heading out myself!" He gestured to the windsurfing board clipped to his car's roof rack.

Ah, sprezzatura. The internet says the term was coined by Baldesar Castiglione in Il Cortegiano, where it refers to an air of measured nonchalance among accomplished courtiers. Become dean. Win the Nobel prize. Do a little windsurfing. No problem. In the Stanford parking lot that day, I had my first lesson in the culture that then characterized Stanford: Sprezzatura. You may be paddling furiously under the water line, but above the surface you're a calm and graceful swan.

But that was 1991. Decades later, I can report that the days of sprezzatura appear to be behind us here in the silicon valley. Today, a day in the life seems to be all of a rush, running from one thing to the next, face aimed unwaveringly at the phone. But I wonder about all this busyness. Are these hyper-busy people really all that productive? Or are they just looking busy to seem important?

Being busy to look important is nothing new. Chaucer wrote in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1387) of the important lawyer: "Nowhere a man so busy of his class, and yet he seemed much busier than he was." Spend some time people watching on University Avenue, here in Palo Alto (perhaps over a glass of wine), and you'll count dozens of head-down hurriers - but no sprezzatura to be seen anywhere. Even the others at their tables will be busy staring at you-know-what. Perhaps they are trying to fool others, since important people are thought to be busy. (In some contexts, busyness even serves to signal high status.) What's worse, perhaps they are fooling themselves. A full calendar, appointment pings, deadline checklists, "screens up" at meetings, all the trappings of a productive life may convince us that we really are productive.

But what about stopping to think? One advantage of sprezzatura is that it includes having long conversations with others - conversations without an agenda. Sprezzatura means we breathe between sentences, allow silence in the conversation, and listen long enough to hear. Do that enough, and you think - not just of what you must consider, but also of what you may have never considered. We could use more of that in the valley these days.

Remedy? Well, you could spend some time in Croatia. No, seriously. Croatians have a wonderful habit of spending hours on end relaxing and talking at coffee houses. I love the fact that in the Croatian language, they use the phrase ajmo na kavu, that is "let's go for coffee," to mean taking time to talk and think with others. Talking and thinking can lead to many creative things - maybe even some productive things. So what looks on the surface as sprezzatura may be more important than you realize, and it cannot be had if you're driving through Starbucks.


In your spare time, read the book in which Sprezzatura was first coined.