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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Redesigning the Banana

(#innovation for @chrislawer @GrahamHill )

Dave McCoy asks: Who is the process owner of opening a banana? Not humans, obviously. Dave points out that monkeys have a more efficient method.

But here's my answer. The process owner for banana-opening is obviously the banana tree. The process goal is to trick the primate into supporting the propagation objectives of the tree. That’s why the banana skin is designed just so.

Humans and monkeys are both primates. In this particular case, the process owner (e.g. banana tree) probably doesn’t need to differentiate between different species of process user. The banana tree has spent a lot longer evolving the banana skin than various primates have spent working out how to open it, or how to use it for comic effect.

Who is really the process owner? Perhaps this is the kind of question that doesn't have a single correct answer. We can almost always put any given system or process into an alternative frame, thus making sense of things in multiple ways.

So that provides a context for Chris's question How to innovate the banana , which quotes a story from the Boston Globe Yes we have one banana (March 7 2007). Innovation for whom? Design for whom?

Graham thinks the answer is straightforward:

"Innovation is ultimately only for one group of people - Customers. You should have target customers for innovation in mind. They may be new customers. Otherwise you are just guessing. Current, potential, even former customers. Innovation always has some customers in mind. By definition."

But when I ask "innovation for whom", it's partly because I don't know who exactly the customers are. I also don't think that the customers for an innovation to a service are necessarily the same as the customers for the service itself. Process or production innovations may be invisible to the customer - they are often focused on improving the outcome for the process owner.

Checkland's CATWOE lens makes a clear distinction between actor, customer and owner. From the perspective of the fruit tree, the primate that eats the fruit is both a customer (receiving a gift from the tree) and also an actor within the system (dumping the seeds together with a small deposit of fertilizer in a suitable location).

However, when humans try to innovate, they usually reframe the system so that human interests and values are uppermost. The interests of the fruit (to produce more fruit trees) are subordinated to the interests of the supermarkets (to produce commodities with long shelf-life). From a human supply chain perspective, apples are better than pears because they stay fresh longer. See my previous post Comparing Apples and Pears.

Thinking about the stakeholders for the banana redesign project puts me in mind of a well-known example of syntactic ambiguity (attributed to Groucho Marx): "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana." Framing a system is a bit like parsing a sentence - often there is more than one meaningful answer.

One of the things that interests me most about this kind of systems thinking debate is how people think they know which perspective to choose.

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