Schrage, Michael

Michael SchrageTom Peters on Michael Schrage:

I just want to "be seen" around this set of ideas. Frankly, I'm jealous. I'd love to have written this book! Innovation has long been my passion. My bookshelves groan under the weight of case studies on the creation of television, radio, the VCR, the Boeing 747, radar, modern retailing. But Serious Play is simply the best book on innovation I've ever read. If you don't read this book and act, if you don't read this book and fundamentally reshape your unit's innovation process, you are making an enormous mistake—bypassing the number one opportunity to revive and revise your organization. Read! Act! Now!

Serious Play book cover asks Michael Schrage …

How do you describe the work you do?

MS: Actually, I’ve always tried to not do just one thing. I do write books—the latest is Serious Play from HBS Press—and the “Brave New Work” column for Fortune. I hold an appointment at the Media Lab at MIT, where I’m going to coordinate collaborative research between the Lab and the Sloan School of Management. I do a lot of work with various companies Internet and otherwise. I try not to do just one thing. In practice, I live in several cities and on airplanes and it’s not easy to describe what I do really. That’s a painful tradeoff. But I’d rather be a mutant fox than a hedgehog.

Coolest project you’ve worked on in the last month?

MS: Cool isn’t really in my vocabulary. There are many things I’m working on that are compelling7mdash;my interpretation of cool. But the one that I’d like to share began as a joke, and has me trying to get a patent for a paperless coupon that has nothing to do with the Internet. You know Moore’s Law, and Metcalf’s Law? Well I decided I wanted my own law. Schrage’s Law.

Schrage’s Law is that, “The surest way to add value to a network is to connect it to another network.” Creating new relationships between networks creates new relationships between people. New relationships between people is a fantastic recipe for creating new industries. Look at QVC, the Internet and network TV. Look at FedEx, computing and airfreight. The coupon I’m working on will connect points of sales with advertising with customers—creating new commercial value for its (new) network of users. The coupon and its commercialization are my current prototype project.

Any “ahas” large or small, from that project?

MS: Yes, but it’s subtle. In creating a patent you have to understand what your claims are—which is what patents are fundamentally about. And in commercializing your patent you have to understand what your value is. Taken together, those two issues can optimize the design process. Let me explain by quoting one of my favorite lines from [Internet inventor and 3Com founder] Bob Metcalf. “Invention is a flower. Innovation is a weed.”

The real epiphany I’ve had in this project is that there are things you can do in each process (invention and innovation and their corollary, patents and their commercialization) that you can’t do in the other, but they need to be in dialogue with each other. I’m for taking the invention process out of the proverbial black box.

When something goes really well at work—how do you “put an exclamation point” on it, a.k.a. celebrate?

MS: I’m not really a celebratory kind of guy. When I finish something it’s more with a sense of relief than wanting to party. In finishing my book, Serious Play, I’ve noticed something interesting—I’ve become extra sensitive to that window of time immediately following the public unveiling of the work … when you get the public feedback, good and bad.

I view that feedback now very differently than I did 10-12 years ago [when I wrote my first book]. Now I realize I will never get a greater gift than that first round of fresh and thoughtful feedback, and I pay attention much more carefully. Doing the work is just the beginning of the conversation. The more I’m able to incorporate that feedback into my thinking and work going forward the better. And I’m lucky. I have really good formal and informal feedback networks.

What or who prepared you for the work you currently do?

MS: All of this work can really be traced back to when I was the first technology reporter for the Washington Post from l983-l987. I was covering Silicon Valley and Route 128, and doing the standard story about the entrepreneur with the great idea that launched the business. Then I realized that the basic story pattern was, well, wrong.

I’ve always been interested in innovation. And of course reporters like writing about newer things—it’s either that or crime—and I wasn’t going to do Night Police in P.G. County.

But what I saw—company after company—was that the innovation wasn’t just about creative individuals, but about creative relationships—and particularly collaborative relationships.

And collaborative relationships need shared space (any collaborative medium—cocktail napkin to computer modeling that serves as communication space that two or more people share). After my first book came out, Shared Minds, I realized that I had to focus on this … if we care about the future of collaboration we have to care about the future of shared space … there’s a real ecology there. Then prototypes became a fabulous vehicle for interacting within the process of innovation, within a shared space.

When I was a new reporter I was concerned with getting good quotes. Now, when I work with teams and consult, the gap between what people say and what they do is far more interesting. I became much more concerned about behaviors around prototyping, whether it’s designers around the screen or marketers around models; design behaviors take a big shift around prototypes.

Behavior changes matters more than technological change.

In the world of newspaper journalism, language, fidelity to fact, and the interpretation of those facts in print are central concerns. In the real world—behavioral issues are much more critical. (In the real work of innovation) I view models and prototypes as battleground for thought and behaviors.

What WOW!s you … right now?

MS: All kinds of stuff. You want a good WOW!? It’s that it used to be when you had a crazy idea you had to start with an apology. Now when you have a crazy idea you have to be taken seriously … your organization cannot afford not to. The boundaries for acceptable weirdness have dramatically expanded.

A bad WOW! is how many truly smart and interesting people aren’t willing to spend even 15 minutes being usefully introspective. They’re so goal-focused that it’s do or DIE, with an emphasis on DIE. It goes beyond the impetuousness of youth … it’s the lack of willingness to make marginal considerations that can have order of magnitude impacts. You ask, “Have you thought of such and such?” and it’s “We don’t have the time …” Yes, but a half-hour or hour can change or certainly accelerate what you’re doing. It’s not just dollars and hard and fast goals, it’s an issue of style. When you really push some people to look at their project, their work, the cost of articulating is just too high.

What’s your current favorite Web destination?

MS: Hmmm … the places I go regularly … the Washington Post site, I’ve begun looking at but I’m not committed … I’ve made a deliberate decision in my dealings with technology not to be an early adopter of technology—I have decided to be in the top 20% as opposed to the top 2%. Let me tell you why—and I get into arguments with my colleagues at the Media Lab about this all the time … and it’s based on my experience in hanging around early adopters. They de-couple themselves from the mainstream … and that makes life more difficult for them.

For someone who does the things I do—writing, consulting, researching—it’s important to stay connected to your clients and your communities of collaborators. I’ve been in this position as a writer and researcher … you have to be sensitive to the kind of behaviors you have that can distance yourself from your audience. Your value vocabulary and your clients’ value vocabulary have to relate.

What’s your current favorite geographic destination?

MS: I can honestly say that one of the great things about my life is that I can go to sleep and wake up in 7 or 8 cities around the world and want to see people and go to places no matter … but if you held a gun to my head, I love NYC. But in terms of entertainment, variety, and fun, I left my heart in San Francisco—the New Florence of the Millennium.

What word(s) summarizes what makes you distinct?

MS: Value added curiosity.

Anything in the world of work you wish would become extinct?

MS: Management of overhead … all the crap that has to be paid and organized … the co-efficient of friction associated with the grunge of business is amazing. It’s the sort of “eat your peas” part of business that I can’t stand, but it’s a necessary evil.

Your prediction about the biggest changes ahead in the world of work?

MS: The exaggeration of people’s individual traits and distinctiveness. There will be less of an effort to homogenize and get along and more, or an effort to deal with people as individuals with different ethnic, educational and cultural backgrounds.

It’s going to be more difficult to get along in this era as it is … as long as the economy is moderately healthy … if it turns things may change but still the motivation to diversify is strong.

What word or idea do you find interesting/intriguing most right now?

MS: Right now I’m on a roll with the ideas of:
… evolutionary psychology
… human behavior
… history of technology, design and sciences

And I’m always looking at how they play back and forth.

What word or idea gives you the creeps?

MS: Anonymity. If you care about something, if you have an idea, for God’s sake attach your name to it.

What do you crave?

MS: I’ve really tried to run my life so those that I’ve chosen to do the things that are important to me … you could use the term crave. And I do. You will not, for instance, hear me complaining about my clients. The way I’ve chosen to design things … I’m very happy with how I’ve designed the work I do. Yes there’s a lot I wish could be better, but those changes are on the margins.

Next biggest risk you’d like to take?

MS: It’ll represent nothing to do with my work life … a novel … a movie … some sorts of creative improvisation within a medium. If that fails, there’s always marriage.

Interview by Julie Anixter, 11/16/99

For more on Michael Schrage:

MIT Media Lab:


Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate (1999)
No More Teams (1995)
Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration (1990)


Michael Schrage on Serious Play