I caught up with The New Yorker’s recent Food issue too late to capture a link to an online version of Malcolm Gladwell’s piece, The Bakeoff. Maybe a copy will show up later at gladwell.com The article describes a “contest” to devise a better cookie, supervised by food engineer Steve Gundrum of Mattson & Co. The point of the contest was to pit three teams against one another; each team mirrored an organizational structure found in, of all things, software development. There was a hierarchical R&D team; there was an Extreme Programming (XP) team; there was an Open Source team.
The outcome isn’t important (R&D won), and there are lots of nits to pick both with Gundrum’s approach (assuming that it’s been fairly represented) and/or with Gladwell’s entertaining but typically glib writing (if it hasn’t). It’s a fun and interesting article because it talks directly about how we get new things — a topic that doesn’t get enough attention — rather than the coolness of the new things themselves.
What I enjoyed most was this passage:
[E]veryone in the software world agreed that trying to get people to be as creative as possible was, as often as not, a social problem: it depended not just on who was on the team but on how the team was organized.
“I remember once I was working with a printing company in Chicago,” [XP guru Kent] Beck says. “The people there were having a terrible problem with their technology. I got there, and I saw that the senior peopole had these corner offices, and they were working separately and doing things separately that they had trouble integrating later on. So I said, ‘Find a space where you can work together.’ So they found a corner of the machine room. It was a raised floor, ice cold. They just loved it. They would go there five hours a day, making lots of progress. I flew home. They hired me for my technical expertise. And I told them to rearrange the office furniture, and that was the most valuable thing I could offer them.”