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Shop assistants as innovators

Later this week my I will present a paper on shop assistants as innovators. I will do this together with my colleagues Tjip de Jong and Joseph Kessels at the HRD conference in Lille. In this paper we critically examine three assumptions on which activities in traditional change processes are commonly based, and we propose an alternative approach. This new approach has three starting points:

  • We consider the supermarket staff as knowledge workers
  • Knowledge workers have an important role in developing innovations during their work.
  • Instead of imposing an intended change as if it were completely new management should look for 'seeds' or successful examples.

We conducted action research in 17 supermarkets. That means that we worked in the shops, talked with the employees, sat in the canteen. One of the things that we found was that there are three types of supermarkets: one organised as a family; one organised as a student house, and one organised as a firm. Each of these types has different qualities. From the research it revealed that it is necessary to allow for diversity; that ownership and entrepreneurship contribute more to change than discipline and obedience; and that the specific role and capability of the manager seems to be crucial. Staff needs to develop competencies that match their own ability and interests in order to successfully innovate in the supermarket. In order to become innovative shop employees should be granted the authority to engage in knowledge work. In the supermarkets that we visited during the research, we found various interventions that could support the development of ownership and entrepreneurship of the supermarket staff. I've attached the paper to this entry. 

DeJong_Verdonschot_Kessels_Shop assistants as innovators.pdf282.44 KB

Paper on the descriptive quality of the 11 design principles

Do the eleven design principles for knowledge productivity work as descriptive principles? That's what the paper I've written with my colleague Joseph Kessels is about. One of the conclusions is that the design principles do not help you in designing the process in your innovation project just like a map helps you to design a route from Amsterdam to Lille. We found that the design principles do not work as prescriptive rules that in a specific combination, applied to a predefined situation, will result in certain effects. However, the design principles each offer a new perspective on the innovation practice you are working on. This new perspective helps to get new ideas for interventions. After the design of these interventions it is mainly the facilitator who has an important role in making it a success. If he sees opportunities and is capable, then he can use the interventions to create breakthroughs in the innovation practice.

We've submitted the paper for the 9th HRD conference in Lille. The conference takes place 21-23 May. We'll be there!


Verdonschot_Kessels_The prescriptive quality.pdf95.74 KB

Quiet Leadership

David Rock says in his book Quiet Leadership that leaders who want to improve their employee’s performance should improve their employees thinking instead of telling them what to do. Rock offers a six-step guide, the dialogues he offers as examples throughout the book make this approach very concrete. And they offer handles to start conversations like these yourself:


  • Step 1: think about thinking (Paul says to Sally: "I really don't know how to lift our sales right now". Sally then does what most managers do, and says: "It's important to get our sales moving so we hit our targets. I think you need to get more focused and put more time into this, the deadline is coming up fast". Here Sally is trying to help Paul to perform better by telling Paul what to do. In another approach where Paul would do more of the thinking, Sally could ask: "How can I best help you think this through?" and "When you say you're not sure about the project, which part of this do you want to discuss with me?" p. 37)
    Here it is also important to focus on solutions instead of problems. In relation to this Rock introduces an interesting distinction: "Why versus Learning". He says that questions with the word 'why' in it usually do not lead to learning, the lead to reasons and justifications. Learning questions sound different. The why-question 'why did this happen?' has a learning-question equivalent: 'what do you want to achieve here?'.
  • Step 2: listen for potential. And that means that you concentrate on not listening for opportunities to sound intelligent, not listening to get information you want, and even not listening to see how you can help.
  • Step 3: speak with intent. That means: be succinct (express yourself compact and don’t waste words), be specific and be generous. In this chapter the author also shares his way of dealing with digital communications in his own company. They have several rules for sending emails: Use emails for exchanging information; if emails are longer than one screen, delete the email and email an agenda instead and use mail to schedule a phone call. Never send an email that could emotionally affect another person unless it’s pure positive feedback.
  • Step 4: dance toward insight
  • Step 5: CREATE New Thinking
  • Step 6: Follow up

What I like about the book is its starting point that we can’t think for others and that therefore good managers don’t offer solutions but rather help their people think. The dialogues he uses to illustrate this approach make it a very useful book.

Rock, D. (2006). Quiet leadership, six steps to transforming performance at work. New York: Harper Collins.

Innovation game was a success!

We developed a game for people to learn to work with the design principles for knowledge productivity in order to improve their own innovation practice. The game consists of a role-play in which people bring in their own cases. One group plays the situation and the other group observes and gives directions to the other group in order to create a breakthrough in the process. The design principles were used as a starting point to design interventions. It was great fun to work like this. One of the nice things from this game being not only a game but also part of my research, is that I did short interviews with all the participants afterwards. They were all enthusiastic and I heard many beautiful examples of how they used the things they've learned in the game in their own work. Other learnings:

  • Doing interviews after an intervention like this is not only contributing to my research purpose, it is a learning intervention in itself. I should do this more often after working with people.
  • The design principles appeared to be a useful framework to analyse what is going on and to decide upon next steps. They do not prescribe how that next step looks, but they give an indication of its direction.
  • Every participant filled out a small self-test before the start of the game. This appeared to be an effective and personal way to get to know the design principles beforehand.
  • The lessons learned by the participants were most of the time not new lessons. It were insights that connected to things they encountered before. This confirms the idea that learning works best when it connects both to prior knowledge and to a question the learner is occupied with.

PhD research on knowledge productivity

Yesterday I attended the defense of Christiaan Stam's PhD-thesis 'Knowledge productivity, designing and testing a method to diagnose knowledge productivity and plan for enhancement'. The subject of his research is very much related to mine (knowledge productivity!) and I've read it with great interest. He combines two perspectives on knowledge productivity: a process perspective and an output perspective. The research has resulted in the design of a participative method to support organisations in diagnosing their knowledge productivity and ways for enhancing that. His work not only contributes to the further conceptual elaboration of the concept of knowledge productivity and the corporate curriculum, it also offers a very thorough design based research approach (including alpha and beta-testing!). The complete dissertation is online available via his website on intellectual capital (a website about intellectual capital that distributes a complete dissertation has indeed a very unusual approach to intellectual capital!).

Research on the transfer of the ability to innovate

Kirsti Booijink has finished her master thesis! She has examined the way the ability to innovate that people acquire by participating in innovation practices is transferred to the day-to-day work environment. She has done the research in the context of Habiforum and has studied several of their 'pilot projects' (in Dutch: 'proeftuinen'). One of her findings is that the application in the day-to-day work environment of abilities, acquired in the pilot project, is influenced by a 'layer' consisting of people around the individual. These people, in what Booijink calls a membrane, facilitate the others to use their abilities. The membrane gives them the freedom to experiment, to apply new skills, and to make mistakes. I find this idea of a membrane striking: organisations themselves seem not able to offer a stimulating context for innovation. It works better when we organise pilot projects (with a way of working that is completely different from the way of working in the day-to-day work environment), and then, in order to transfer, we need a membrane, in order to have the freedom to experiment and make mistakes. This gives the impression that innovation takes place rather in spite of organisations rather than thanks to them. Wouldn't it be an interesting perspective to see if we could design organisations as pilot projects (proeftuinen or innovation practices)...? Download the research report of this study (in Dutch!).

The innovation value chain

My colleague Cees Sprenger gave me an article by Morten Hansen and Julian Birkinshaw on the innovation value chain (the HBR-article was translated for the Dutch HMR. Their article is based on findings of five large research projects on innovation they undertook the last ten years. They say that:

  • … organisations that want to be better at innovation, too often start with idea generation and plan one of those brainstorm-sessions. Whereas, they say, the problem is often not generating good ideas but rather bringing them further. Therefore they propose a value chain consisting of three phases: idea generation, idea conversion, and idea diffusion.
  • … organisations cannot allow themselves to be active only at one phase of the value chain. They should be aware of the whole process. It is not about generating as much ideas as you can but about connecting the ideas to further development and to the outside world.
  • … organisations need to focus on the weakest link in the value chain instead of the strongest (as they quite often do). The authors offer all kinds of attractive ways to work on these weakest links (like building safe havens for emerging concepts).

Some of my reflections:

  • Focussing on the weakest link runs counter to the idea of working from strengths. I think where the two meet, is in the individual. The organisation’s policy or culture might be pointed at one or two stages of the value chain, but I believe that the individuals represent the whole value chain. Some people like generating ideas, others like to think of ways to make an idea work. So it is not so much focussing at your weakest link but rather looking for the individuals that are passionate about the phase of innovation the organisation itself is not naturally working on.
  • The focus of their article lies on product innovation. A product is something that can literally be distributed. How would the situation differ in organisations whose primary ‘product’ for their customers consists of services (see for instance the PhD research of Anna van Poucke (2005), she looked at knowledge intensive service firms and divides the innovation process into three phases: Idea generation, Crystallization, and Evolution). A service is not something that can be literally distributed.


  • Hansen, M.T., Birkinshaw, J. (2007). The Innovation Value Chain, Harvard Business Review, 85 (6), 121-130.
  • Van Poucke, A. B. M. (2005). Towards radical innovation in knowledge-intensive service firms. Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, Rotterdam.

Christopher Alexander's pattern language

Patterns again... Somehow a recurring theme in my blogposts... One of the people I work with in my research (respondent&sparring partner!)drew my attention to the work of Christopher Alexander. 'A pattern language' is the second in a series of books that describe an entirely new attitude towards architecture and planning. The book contains over 200 patterns. Each pattern describes a problem "which occurs over and over again in our environment", and besides the problem it describes the solution to that problem. The patterns are concerned with towns, buildings, and construction. every pattern is described in the same format, and most of them are illustrated with tiny drawings that only add to the can-not-stop-reading-effect of the book.

What I find inspiring is both the way he has described his research findings (in patterns that are so practical that they even help to design your own living room) and the content of the patterns. Let me give some examples:

Pattern no 94. Sleeping in public: "It is a mark of success in a park, public lobby or a porch, when people can come there and fall asleep". Therefore "keep the environment filled with ample benches, comfortable places, corners to sit on the ground, or lie in comfort in the sand".

Pattern no 84. Teen-age society: "Teenage is the time of passage between childhood and adulthood. In traditional societies, this passage is accompanied by rites which suit the psychological demands of the transition. But in modern society the 'high school' fails entirely to provide this passage". Therefore "provide adult guidance, both for the learning and the social structure of the society; but keep them as far as feasible, in the hands of the students".

Pattern no 180. Window place: "everybody loves window seats, bay windows, and big windows with low sills and comfortable chairs drawn up to them". Therefore: "In every room where you spend any length of time during the day, make at least one window into a 'window place'".

Pattern no 18. Networks of learning: "In a society which emphasizes teaching, children and students-and adults- become passive and unable to think or act for themselves. Creative active individuals can only grow up in a society which emphasizes learning instead of teaching". Therefore: "instead of lock-step of compulsary schooling in a fixed flace, work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city: workshops, teachers at home or walking through the city".

I understood that at the time this book was published, not everybody was as happy with it as I am now. Architects felt threatened a bit: this book made urban planning accessible for non-professionals. And even more than that: Alexander's view relies on the idea that people know more than they can tell (Polanyi!) his patterns give people the handles to rely on this tacit knowledge. It helps them to recognise it and use it.

Read more:

Appreciative Living

My colleague Anja Doornbos, shares her experiences with 'appreciative living': "Appreciative Living...impressed me much. Jackie Kelm took us during her workshop on her personal journey to discover the beauty of appreciative living. It started ten years ago. She struggled with depression and during that time Jackie met David Cooperrider. He and appreciative inquiry inspired her to develop her personal approach to growth and change. She was very excited to share her story with us and did so joyfully. She inspired me to appreciate small things in the light of great dreams. I have used her cards with 40 quotes, questions and tips that help to excersise your 'appreciative muscle' on many occasions. It strikes me how people pick the right card every time". Of course I immediately ordered myself a bag with cards... and now I can't wait to find it in my mailbox.

Copenhagen rules!

I just got back from a great week in Copenhagen! The ECCI-team did a great job in finding a form for the conference congruent with its theme… The keynote sessions didn’t take place in one of those big lecture halls. Typically stuffed away somewhere in the back of the building because A) they’re too big to get a central place, and B) because you don’t need windows in them anyway since contact with the outside world would only distract the audience from its main task: listening to the voice of that tiny creature standing in the front and looking at these immense powerpoint slides projected on the screen above the creature’s head… The keynotes at ECCI took place in the entrance-hall, the central place around which the rest of the conference took place as well. The keynote speakers were standing in the middle, a perfect place to interact with the others. And they did… we’ve been dancing, meditating, reflecting etc. And still, some speakers don’t need much, they tell their story and it is great to listen to.
Here are some quotes that I took with me from Copenhagen:

  • Gulf-player Gary Player responds to a journalist who assumes that he is winning so much because he is lucky: “the more I practice, the luckier I get”.
  • Isn’t it wonderful to see skillful people work?!” (Jacob Buur)
  • If you manage knowledge, you don’t use it” (Bo Seifert)
  • Rolf Smith facilitates people in undertaking Thinking Expeditions. He compares these expeditions to climbing a mountain. What touched me was that he said: “Most accidents in mountain climbing happen just after the top has been reached, when people have started their way back. Why? Because they loose focus!
  • "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people"
  • So much of what we call management, consists in making it difficult for people to work
  • A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle"