15.S07, Week 1, The Bakeoff

I am, week by week, going through Pierre Azoulay’s course on innovation.

Last week, I read “The Bakeoff,” and live-tweeted it.  Here are some extended thoughts:

At its core, this article is about a noble experiment by a naive operator (Gundrum), trying to answer the question: what is the optimal way we should form teams, in order to innovate?

I like Gundrum, because hey, he invented Mrs. Fields, but I call him naive because the 3 forms of team were kind of haphazardly thrown together.  In particular, one team is in traditional hierarchical style, and the other two are inspired by software coding practices (XP, or pair programming, and open source).

Besides the first, which is a control, I really don’t think the other two represent distinct “methods of innovation” as Gundrum intends.  Which makes sense — neither pair programming nor open source were developed in order to innovate faster or better, per se.

What would we like to see instead?  Well, just think about any good experiment.  What we want to do is a) have a theory about some independent variable X that we think will influence our rate/quality of innovation, and b) set up our teams such that, as much as possible, all that is different between them is a randomized tweak of X.  Obviously you can’t literally clone a team and do exactly that, but it’s the form we want to approximate, to say anything about X’s effect on Y (innovation).

There are of course other ways to set up the experiment (e.g., you could have one team, and introduce a plausibly exogenous shock — Z — into the system that only acts on Y through X), but basically we are after isolating effects.

I actually thought Gundrum did a reasonably good job of thinking about how to measure Y, though, after all — a representative sample engaged in a fair taste test, and voted on which cookie they liked best.  This is a not-bad, if maybe high-cost and slow, way to measure how “good” at innovating each team was (although of course, innovation != tastes best, necessarily…).

Anyway a good first exercise, and helpful in prodding us to think about how we might set up a better experiment, if we were in Gundrum’s shoes.