After posting about the composition of multidisciplinary teams, (friend of ODF) Mike Baxter sent me a link to Simon Wardly’s post on Pioneers, Settlers, and Town Planners, which describies a unique combination of characteristics needed to bring products and services to life. The concept, says Simon, is adapted from Robert X. Cringely's book Accidental Empires which describes companies in terms of Commandos, Infantry and Police. It’s worth repeating Simon’s description of his characterisation in full:
'Pioneers are brilliant people. They are able to explore never before discovered concepts, the uncharted land. They show you wonder but they fail a lot. Half the time the thing doesn't work properly. You wouldn't trust what they build. They create 'crazy' ideas. Their type of innovation is what we call core research. They make future success possible. Most of the time we look at them and go "what?", "I don't understand?" and "is that magic?". In the past, we often burnt them at the stake. They built the first ever electric source (the Parthian Battery, 400AD) and the first ever digital computer (Z3, 1943).
Settlers are brilliant people. They can turn the half baked thing into something useful for a larger audience. They build trust. They build understanding. They make the possible future actually happen. They turn the prototype into a product, make it manufacturable, listen to customers and turn it profitable. Their innovation is what we tend to think of as applied research and differentiation. They built the first ever computer products (e.g. IBM 650 and onwards), the first generators (Hippolyte Pixii, Siemens Generators).
Town Planners are brilliant people. They are able to take something and industrialise it taking advantage of economies of scale. This requires immense skill. You trust what they build. They find ways to make things faster, better, smaller, more efficient, more economic and good enough. They build the services that pioneers build upon. Their type of innovation is industrial research. They take something that exists and turn it into a commodity or a utility (e.g. with Electricity, then Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse). They are the industrial giants we depend upon.'
You need, says Simon, brilliant people in each of these roles to create the right combination that can not only generate new ideas, but also commercialise and scale them. This correlates nicely with the Joseph Schumpeter concept of the process of technological change in a free market consisting of three parts: invention (conceiving a new idea or process), innovation (arranging the economic requirements for implementing an invention...in other words the commercialisation of ideas), and diffusion (whereby people observing the new discovery adopt or imitate it...in other words generating scale). If innovation is a process defined by these different but necessary competencies, then we need to create the conditions in which they can all feed off each other.
A few things struck me about this. At an individual level, the old idea of T-shaped people seems more appropriate than ever. We might call them Smart Creatives now, but the people that can combine competencies that are rooted in business, technology and creativity (or at least that have a vertical specialism in one area but also an understanding of, empathy for, or appreciation of the value of the others), are the people that can create real change within businesses. The same is surely true for pioneers, settlers and town planners.
At a team level, whilst a combination of business, technology and creative skills are important for success (particularly in the context of small, multidisciplinary teams, or what Simon calls 'cell based structures'), these are practice areas. Having cell based structures focused on the role of pioneer/settler/town planner might well be how you apply those skills. In a small company, more than one of these roles might have to be incorporated in one team, but might the same be true within a large organisation?
At an organisational level, we of-course need to be good at all three stages in that Schumpeter model: invention (so we need pioneers); innovation and commercialisation (so we need settlers); and scaling (so we need town planners). Eric Ries makes a good point about how in most companies the problem is not a lack of ideas, but the lack of a process to test out those ideas and to take them out of the lab and commercialise them. Too often early stage concepts emerge from a lab situation into a business-as-usual environment and are immediately shackled with expectation, targets, forecasts, departmental silos, strangling the idea before it's had chance to find its place.
So of-couse we need leaders, entrepreneurs and managers within companies, but beyond that we need pioneers, settlers and town planners. And we need to establish ways to structure these roles that enable us to move fast with focus.