Compartmentalizing roles stifles innovation

August 25, 2013

In case you didn’t catch it, the cover story on Wired Magazine this month is on “The Future of Design.” It's worth a read.

One prominent headline that caught my eye was: Without the proper design, any new technology can be terrifying. The task of making it can’t be left to engineers alone.

While I get their point, I take some issue with the spirit of this comment. It implies that engineers can’t be trusted — or perhaps even involved — in the process of artfully integrating new technologies into the fabric of a user’s experience. It’s not that I think engineers need to control the process. I just think this sort of “compartmentalization” of roles and responsibilities is unhealthy and limiting. The thought that engineers focus strictly and exclusively on technical matters without any thought or care for the physiological or cultural implications of their actions is wrong, diminishes the profession and draws artificial boundaries that can stagnate, divert or cripple promising areas of innovation.

It is no more accurate than inferring that marketing individuals are blind to technological issues, finance professionals don't care about sustainability, lawyers are blind to the need to have a viable business model or designers only care about aesthetics. These are all complicated, interwoven issues that are wrapped up in the experience of any new technology and parsing them into antiquated educational taxonomies is a mistake.

​I believe that innovation will evolve from teams comprised of people from multiple disciplines to teams of multidisciplinary individuals.

I continue to believe that 21st century innovation will evolve from teams comprised of people from multiple disciplines to teams of multi-disciplinary individuals. In my experience, the most innovative individuals transcend the narrow limitation of their core educational discipline to develop deep empathy for all the disparate skills required for creating and inventing. This will require a new breed of innovator -- one who may have core training as an engineer but also has understanding and empathy for business, law, psychology, sales, finance and prototyping. In fact, the most innovative people in our history — Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs, Leonardo DaVinci, Bill Gates, Dean Kamen — are all individuals whose backgrounds defy traditional educational archetypes. I have been told we can’t “educate” this type of multi-disciplinary person — that they are born rather than taught. I disagree. I’m not sure we’ve tried.

In a society that is facing complex multi-dimensional issues, I think the future requires complex, multi-disciplinary individuals with a broader perspective on identifying needs, envisioning solutions and driving innovation for the good of society.