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What every start-up can learn from Frank Gehry, the extreme experimenter

Published 19 November 2021 in Audio articles • 5 min read • Audio availableAudio available

Too much focus on validation can stifle flexibility and open-mindedness, the qualities essential for innovation. Gehry, the world-renowned architect, now in his nineties, is a case study in how to achieve success by doing things differently. 

 

Research shows most start-ups fail because they offer a product or service nobody wants. Put another way, they have devised an idea that is viable, but not desirable. To establish whether an idea is desirable as well as viable requires experimentation of a special kind. Successful experimenting combines two seemingly contradictory features: total focus and total flexibility.

That contrasts with conventional concepts of experimentation as a single-minded process of validating an idea. Typically, a scientist, inventor or entrepreneur develops a hypothesis and endeavours to prove it. The emphasis on validation is rooted in the scientific method: valid scientific protocols are based on formulating hypotheses, testing them, analyzing the results and drawing conclusions. 

But too much focus on validation can stifle flexibility and open-mindedness – qualities essential for innovation. Experimenting should never lock entrepreneurs into a cycle but offer opportunities to go in different directions. Risk takers need to test their offerings earlier, on a smaller scale, and in more hostile environments. And when criticised, they have to take negative comments on board.  

Some universal lessons 

To innovate successfully, there are five key principles that are crucial to learning from experiments. All five can be illustrated vividly through the work of Frank Gehry, the internationally renowned architect whose pioneering designs stand out from Berlin to Bilbao. Gehry, now in his 90s, provides a striking – and entertaining – case study in what is required for successful innovation.  

1. Welcome surprises

Preserving one’s capacity to investigate even while trying to validate assumptions means welcoming and accepting surprises. Maintaining an exploratory mindset allows one to acquire faster, richer, and more unexpected data.  

Innovative by design: the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and the Disney concert hall (headline picture) in Los Angeles

Gehry is a case in point. His fame stems from the instantly recognizable aesthetic of his buildings. Crumpled roofs, distorted facades and assorted other trademarks immediately give away a Gehry building’s origins.   

But such originality stems from a very unorthodox approach to experimentation. Every Gehry commission starts with a distinctive sketch, unconstrained by architectural norms: the drawings are loose, squiggly and impressionistic, rather than the precise, clean lines of conventional architectural renderings. Gehry’s sketches pay no heed to practicalities – or even gravity. But although the drawings provide only loose directions, they contain – in retrospect – the dynamic energy of the final design. They convey a feeling that will excite, or sometimes disturb, the client. 

2. Propose multiple models

Gehry gives clients multiple designs, which offers two advantages. First, it keeps him from getting too attached to any one idea. Second, it speeds discovery and allows him to pivot earlier, before hitting a wall. This lean start-up approach is very much sequential. Gehry sets off in one direction and goes through iterative cycles. The primary aim is to gain feedback and a first impression of whether the ideas resonate with independent experts and paying customers. Market testing in parallel is all the easier in the digital realm, where it’s fast and cheap to realistically simulate non-existent products or services. No opportunity is lost or inadvertently dismissed. 

3. Provoke strong reactions

 Gehry doesn’t just propose several sketches or models, but develops extreme positions to provoke strong reactions, as he values negative feedback as much as positive. He constantly surprises and even discomforts clients to encourage strong and steady responses. He engages in open and vibrant discussions with clients so that they can together delineate their aspirations, with Gehry heeding reactions and integrating them into his thinking. 

4. Accept and incorporate feedback

Because his designs are unconventional, Gehry is sometimes misrepresented as someone who imposes designs on clients. But in fact, he goes through multiple iterations of every project and is eager for client feedback throughout.  

So although Gehry quickly translates his sketches into three-dimensional models, there is a prolonged back-and-forth between models and drawings. The experimentation process remains “liquid” for a considerable period. One reason why Gehry resists settling on a “right” model is because of his preference to create a variety of studies intended to provoke strong reactions. His clients’ responses then allow Gehry to refine and adjust his rough workings – or even come up with entirely new ones offering divergent solutions.  

Out of the box thinking: Gehry's Luma arts center in Arles, the French town where Van Gogh created his greatest work

Central to Gehry’s success has been his ability to admit failure – to reject his initial attempt and start again, with renewed confidence that the draft would be better because of what he has learned.  

5. Seek out people who think differently

Another key to accepting critical feedback is to discuss it with people who may see other possibilities and won’t fear offering a challenge. Seeking out people with diverse opinions, including those whose views may even be diametrically opposed, is a critical element in self-assessment and avoiding failure.   

Gehry, for example, though famously computer illiterate, surrounded himself with people who understood computer aided design (CAD) and embraced the possibilities it offered. Although Gehry never learned to design on a computer, he has never eschewed guidance on what could be achieved digitally.  

Harnessing newly available design technology, developed originally for the aerospace sector, helped Gehry recognize possibilities, rather than constraints, and allowed the architect to explore his own creativity. Over time, Gehry pushed the edges of computer modelling, and became among the first architects to use computers to aid design and manufacturing. The technology allowed him to create stunningly complex geometric constructions and free-form designs using ordinary building materials – essentially creating a tech firm in the process. 

Gehry’s lessons, notably on interpreting incoming data and avoiding bias, apply to all budding innovators. Avoiding pinning oneself down too soon, embarking on an iterative process – even if time-consuming – and letting the data speak, are key messages. The same applies to seeking out people who think differently and listening to what they say.  

Gehry’s somewhat weird structures may not be to everybody’s taste, but they have become landmarks in their own right and, in that sense, have established themselves as both viable and desirable. The lessons from his practice apply to everyone who wants to explore new ideas while minimizing the risks of failure. 

This article is an adapted excerpt from the book, ALIEN Thinking: The Unconventional Path to Breakthrough Ideas (PublicAffairs, 2021).  

Authors

Jean-Louis Barsoux - IMD Professor

Jean-Louis Barsoux

Research Professor at IMD

Jean-Louis helps organizations, teams and individuals change and reinvent themselves. He was educated in France and the UK. He holds a PhD in comparative management from Loughborough University in England. His doctorate provided the foundation for the book French Management: Elitism in Action (with Peter Lawrence) and a Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Making of French Managers.”

Cyril Bouquet - IMD Professor

Cyril Bouquet

Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD

Cyril Bouquet helps organizations reinvent themselves by letting their top executives explore the future they want to create together. As a professor at IMD, Cyril is doing research that has gained significant recognition in the field. He is Director of the Innovation in Action program.

Michael Wade - IMD Professor

Michael R. Wade

Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD

Michael holds the Cisco Chair in Digital Business Transformation, he is the Director of the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation. and he is Co-Director of the Leading Digital Business Transformation program. His areas of expertise relate to strategy, innovation, and digital transformation. He obtained Honours BA, MBA and PhD degrees from the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario, Canada. Previously, he was the Academic Director of the Kellogg-Schulich Executive MBA Program. Michael has been nominated for teaching awards in the MBA, International MBA, and Executive MBA programs.

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