Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The glass harmonica: a story of creativity and innovation (No.10)

To see the previous posts in this series click here.

The history of the glass harmonica provides important insights into the nature of the innovative process. Five aspects are particularly significant.

Here is the fourth aspect: 

The development of an innovation is closely connected with the development of the team developing that innovation.

The development of the glass harmonica was not easy; there were many mistakes and failures along the way, especially with regard to the glass bowls intrinsic to the instrument's design.

In his writings, Franklin describes how his glassblowers sometimes moved away from his instructions and experimented with the design of the glass bowls. Even though Franklin expresses significant frustration and genuine annoyance about this apparently ineffective use of time, he tolerated it.

This was because he realised too things:
  1. The innovative process always involves false starts, dead ends, failures and mistakes.
  2. For people to successfully innovate they must be given the opportunity to learn from the above and gain new knowledge and develop new skills that will eventually lead to success. 

Despite his frustrations, Franklin persevered with his team of glassblowers and kept them in his employ for almost the entirety of the glass harmonica's development. He managed to strike a balance between being patient with the process of innovation but demanding of the people with whom he worked.

This measure of team stability meant that each craftsman had the time and opportunity to practise (and experiment with) making the glass bowls and add gradually to his knowledge and skills. Eventually, these incremental insights and ongoing improvements in expertise  combined to create the perfect glass harmonica bowl. 

It is true that Franklin's ire led to the coming and going of one or two glassblowers, but each blower originated from the same co-located pool of craftsmen. This made it highly likely that each worker was aware of what his colleagues were doing to develop the glass harmonica's bowls (and also of the failures and mistakes made and what had been learnt from them).

Franklin understood that his glassblowers could not fail to learn from each other as they worked side-by-side for a significant period of time. More than this, he understood that the development of the glassblowing team's knowledge and skills went hand-in-hand with the development of the glass harmonica. He knew that admonishing or disciplining the team too harshly (or changing it too drastically) would hobble its progress and be counter-productive to his goals.

To read the next post click here.

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