Businesses and other organizations provide tools that deliver functions (which hopefully create wealth). Thinking about function is a great place to start with learning, designing, or rethinking just about anything. Many students at my children's school struggle with basic skills, from recognizing numbers to reading. Yet I'm always amazed by the capacity of these young kids - six, seven, eight years old - to comprehend scientific principles. When you ask them to think through a situation found in nature, they are remarkably adept at recognizing the basic reasons why things are the way they are. You can use one of their simple lessons to help understand what your organization actually does and spark some innovative thinking.
Last spring, I helped with a visiting nature program focused on birds. The program leader brought a fascinating array of feathers, nests, and eggs - terrific objects for exploring and learning about nature's designs and clever adaptations.
My group started with feathers. The first thing everyone noticed was beautiful colors. Then they picked up feathers and pretended to fly. When we talked about the functions of feathers, they all understood that there are different kinds of feathers - including those that keep birds warm, others that help in flight, and others that help attract mates. We looked at a diagram of a feather and saw how tiny hooklets tie barbs together to create feathers that are both strong and light. One child shared that an owl's feathers were built a little differently to be silent during flight, so owls can sneak up on their prey.
We moved on to nests. The kids were captivated by the differences among the nests and the interesting things they found weaved into them - an orange string, some hair, twine, ribbon, bark, mud, and leaves. They thought the birds were resourceful for using what they could find. We talked about the purpose of nests, compared the ways humans carry babies before and after birth to birds' use of eggs and nests. We discussed why our strategies (like internal incubation) might not work for a bird that needs to fly to obtain food.
Finally, we looked at eggs, including a big ostrich egg, a tiny robin's egg, and some chicken eggs. The kids understood the delicate balance in the strength of an eggshell - that an eggshell needs to be sturdy enough to withstand some handling in the nest, but not so tough that the hatchling can't get out. We talked about the shape of the egg and how shape lends the egg some strength. Then I asked if they could think of any other reasons the egg was egg-shaped. "So the baby bird can fit in it?" offered a boy who then demonstrated by trying to curl up like a baby bird. We decided to compare a round wooden ball with a wooden egg. I rolled them both across the table. The kids watched the ball roll away and onto the floor, while the egg went around in circles. "Oh! I see! So the egg doesn't roll away from its mom and get lost!" They all immediately saw the usefulness of the egg's shape.
Feathers, nests, and eggs - these things all provide functions that help birds survive under a wide range of conditions. In essence, they increase birds' wealth.
People create wealth by forming tools that serve different functions and deliver benefits. A tool can be something straightforward like a profit-loss statement, something intangible like an economic policy, or something massive like a factory. Tools are not ends; they provide the means to enhance wealth.
Businesses and other organizations provide tools that deliver functions as well. Thinking about function is a great place to start with learning, designing, or rethinking just about anything. The question of function brings you quickly to what's important.
Think about your company's or organization's function. What benefit does it deliver? Your first answer might be a physical product. But is it the really product, or is the product just the means to get some benefit? In other words, is a refrigerator valuable because of what it's made of, its recognizable physical form, or because it stores food safely? While we'll continue to need the benefit of food storage, the method might change. In addition to innovations in food production that eliminate the need for refrigeration (like shelf-stable milk or self-chilling beverages) and efforts to make refrigerators that are more efficient and have fewer environmental impacts, there are attempts to rethink how a fridge works (gel fridge anyone?). But what about a unit that integrates all your dining-related needs? No doubt there will be new innovations that will surprise us.
The point is that questioning function will help us get unstuck from some worn-out ways of thinking. It's an important step to adapting to a rapidly changing world.