Category Archives: Collaboration & Communities

The Problem with Open Innovation

A recent article by Randall Wright in MIT Technology Review discussed the problems with open innovation. There has been lots of articles recently about how open innovation is the next big thing in innovation. In a nutshell, it involves open up your innovation to a large group of people in order to find new ideas.  It’s popular, and has been adopted by lots of well known organizations, such as Starbucks, Coke, and Nike.  Coke purportedly used this methodology, and came up with ideas that were very successful.  However, most of the ideas were based on consumer marketing.  In other words, they got the people that drink Coke (a large percentage of the population is at least familiar with what it is), and had them design a campaign to more effectively sell the product.  The results rivaled the quality and appeal of ads produced by top advertising agencies.  But did they innovate?  No, they “reverse surveyed.”  Instead of surveying consumers with a set of questions, taste tests, etc., to determine the best way to market, they just asked a whole bunch of people to give them the best way to market.  This is similar to asking every customer who leaves a restaurant, “How could we improve our appeal/food/restaurant?” except you do it all at once.

I think this method works well for consumer-oriented organizations.  It can help you select the best new paint colors, catch phrases, and product packaging.  It works in areas where the problems are well known and understandable, i.e., what is your favorite color.  However, when you talk about ground-breaking innovation, you’re referring to areas where the average person has no experience.  Consider Linux, the darling of open innovation, is still outpaced by the commercial products.

According to Wright, “real innovation is always the outcome of ongoing discourse among a small group of innovators who truly understand the importance of what they’re working on.”  Read his article for more insight.


How to Kill Innovation

I read an article by Jason Hiner in Tech Republic talking about the 5 things that can kill innovation. Here they are:

  1. Don’t give ownership of projects
    His basic premise is that individuals do better at managing projects/ideas than teams. The old saying that “Too many cooks spoil the broth” is the acting principle here.  While it may seem “progressive” and socially acceptable to allow the team to make decisions by committee, in practice it just doesn’t work.   There is a difference between “working as a team” and being run as a team.  Consider the real world example of an airline cockpit.  Great effort has been put into getting the pilot and co-pilot to act as equals while managing the aircraft.  It’s called cockpit management, and resulted from accidents where one person–typically the pilot–acted without regard to the opinion of the other.  The pilot and co-pilot now work together, but ultimately, there is only one person in charge.  Consider the case of the USAirways flight that crashed into the Hudson river.  As soon as the birds struck the airplane and they began to lose power, captain Sullivan states, “I’ve got the plane” indicating that he is the one now in charge.  With that said, there is still an active collaborative dialogue as captain Sullivan asks his co-pilot, “can you think of anything else [to do]”.
  2. Create too many layers of management
    To create an innovative environment, Mr. Hiner states, “that you have to find ways to flatten your organization and create less hierarchy, while making sure every employee still gets a little bit of time with the boss on a regular basis in order to stay energized and on target.”  I agree completely.  Management is one of the most critical aspects of innovation, and in addition to his suggestions, you also need management that is supportive (and demonstrates their support) of innovation.
  3. Ignore brainstorming rules
    If you want to be innovative, he suggests that you keep good brainstorming rules, such as limiting negativity because, “some of the craziest ideas could morph into something amazingly useful.”  Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be true, as there is little evidence (in the research literature) that anything of industrial/commercial value has come from brainstorming.   There are plenty of examples of people coming up with a 100 different ways to use a paperclip, but commercially successful innovation almost never involves brainstorming.  It goes against our nature–we’re too competitive.    Nonsense, you might say, “everyone at our organization is happy to help others develop ideas,” and I believe this to be true.  But if you open an idea up to an entire group, you’re going to do a couple of things.  First, you’re diluting the inventors’ idea, possibly in a way that doesn’t make sense, especially if the group is trying to reach consensus.  Second, you’re removing a large part of the incentive for the inventor to push the idea to completion, because you’re reducing the impact of his/her reward. One of the best examples of this is in academia.  I used to believe that this was the most open and collaborative area around, however, this is not the case.  Researchers/Professors are extremely guarded with their ideas, and rarely “brainstorm” them with an entire group.  Why?  Because in most cases, their career, prestige, and funding are directly related to the number of successful ideas that they can come up with.  Sharing can be catastrophic.    Do they collaborate?  Sure, but usually with a very, very limited number of trusted associates.  These people are solicited specifically and are invited to participate because the originator believes that they’ll benefit. When I invent something, I hope (and expect) to be rewarded in some way, i.e., keep my job, get a promotion, get a raise, get a better position, etc.   There are very few people who freely give their best ideas to their colleagues.  More realistically, when people want to collaborate, they do so with some understanding of secrecy, such as NDAs and other agreements to guard their intellectual property.
  4. Rely too heavily on data and dashboards
    Innovation has a tough ROI.  Mr Hiner writes, “Beyond some of the basic data, such as sales and customer traffic, a lot of the data requires sophisticated analysis (because it’s so ambiguous) and many of the truths it contains are relative — or worse, they hide other truths.”  This is really true.  It’s hard to create a return on investment report for an idea.  If the idea is successful, the ROI could so high it would seem unrealistic.  On the other hand, innovation rarely lasts (beyond a 6 months to a year) without payback.   One of the best ways to generate payback and ROI is to innovate against specific problems/issues.  If you innovate against strategic issues, you already have a built-in ROI.
  5. Under-resource your hidden opportunities
    The article states, “Having too many resources makes people sloppy. When you have to get something done with fewer resources than you think you need, it often sharpens your wits, forces you to hustle, and leads you to break through barriers.”  Completely agree.  It’s a great mental challenge to find an answer with limited resources.  It reminds me of the story of the Apollo 13 mission where they had a catastrophic failure shortly after launch.  One of the pressing issues was that the carbon dioxide in the module where the astronauts were living was increasing.  In order to remove the carbon dioxide, the engineers at NASA had to figure out how to fit a “square filter into a round hole” using only the materials available to the astronauts.  They obviously did it and saved the astronaut’s lives.

Does Collaborative Innovation Work?

A New York Times article written several days ago addressed how spending time alone is out of fashion, and that collaborative innovation is hot. There are a myriad of ways to constantly stay connected to your social networks, whether through smartphone applications, the web, open office space/cubicles, collaborative zones, and other software tools.

Every group has jumped on the bandwagon from business to academia, and there has been a plethora of software tools to support the process. The results have been quite unspectacular. It’s hard to point to examples where collaboration has produced a notable creation (think iPhone), whereas there are many examples of collaborative innovation producing polished copies (think Linux).

The realization is that most creative thinking is the result of “alone time,” and its been proven repeatedly. I believe that this is a result of several forces, however, two major elements are intuition and intellectual property. Human intuition allows us to make seemingly intelligent choices without having all of the information/data at hand. Having recently read about how Steve Jobs made choices for the iPod, he clearly did not do it collaboratively, but with an innate sense of what was right. We can already image what a collaborative innovation process would have produced, the MP3 player that already existed. The other element is intellectual property. When you (as the inventor) are creating something, you have a strong drive to keep the information private until have maximized the value (to yourself). Imagine that you were working on an algorithm to figure out how to beat the television show, Jeopardy. Would you share how to do this before or after you won a record dollar amount? Ask Roger Craig if need the answer.

So before you start figuring out how to build collaborative innovation into your organization, you might want to consider the outcome.

Opposites don’t Attract

There is some convincing research that demonstrates that opposites don’t attract. Is this a problem? From a relationship perspective, this might be alright, but from an innovation perspective it isn’t.

Scientists studied a couple of different groups, but the main one was college students. They compared student relationships in a large college (25,000 students) and several smaller colleges (about 500 students) and determined whether “friends” were more or less similar. The researchers employed a variety of personality tests and questions to come to conclusions. The research showed that the friends at the larger college were very similar in ideas, tastes, beliefs, etc., whereas the smaller college had significantly less similarity. The researchers believe that a large reason for this is that at the larger college, you’re more likely to find someone who matches you more perfectly than at a smaller school.

In another study, researchers examined the question of whether people actually “mix” at mixers. Their model was a networking party for approximately 100 people associated with a school’s business program. In similar results, the researchers found that people where more likely to associate with people who they already were familiar with or where there was a third-party connection (two strangers have a mutual friend). One interesting conclusion was that people who came to the mixer with few friends were more likely to meet new people.

From an innovation perspective, you need to be careful that you don’t create a grouping of similar people when trying to solve complex, creative problems, or else you’ll lose the dynamic range of experience and opinions. While no ones to go on a long car ride with people we don’t get along with, from an innovation perspective, it might make more sense.

Are there any inventions left?

A recent article, Why there will never be another Da Vinci, explains that because science is expanding so quickly, it takes many years for any one scientist/researcher to obtain a large enough body of expertise in their field to be able to make a meaningful contribution (patent, new discovery, etc.). The article goes on to say that the reason is because nearly 3,000 scientific articles are published each DAY, and that a typical scientist spends a great amount of their time absorbing the body of knowledge in order to become an expert. He gives the example of Da Vinci, who invented a great many things, and explains that this was the result of not only his genius, but also the fact that it was so easy to invent because there was less knowledge at that time. Here is the quote from the article,

“Yet there is no escaping the fact that Da Vinci was able to achieve so much, so broadly, because so little was known. It was possible to make leaps forward in scientific understanding armed with little more than a keen eye and a vivid imagination.”

While I agree that the amount of scientific knowledge is rapidly expanding, I’m not certain that I would agree that discovery has become the exclusive domain of large teams. The author explains that most patents today come from large teams of people as proof.

I imagine, that in Da Vinci’s time, it didn’t appear to be so easy. I also believe that hindsight is 20-20, and that it’s easy to look backwards and make observations on the obvious. In the year 2200, those people will look back on our inventions with the same hindsight and wonder how anyone couldn’t figure out how to instantly get to the moon and back.

7 Rules for Improving Innovation: #4 Recognition


Employees need to be recognized for their efforts, plain and simple. This is especially trueas you’re trying to drive innovation forward at your company. If you’re not doing this already, you need to start a regularprocess forrecognizing (better yet, rewarding) workers in your company.If the wholeinnovation process is new to your organization, oryour current process is being updated or changed, then you’re most likelyasking employees to perform new tasks that are not already part of their jobs. If this is the case, there must be someunderstandingon their part thatthere’s”something in it for them.”

One way to do this, of course, is to recognize them or give out awards in some sort ofpublic forum. You can pick out these “superstars” by creatingavalue system that ties intothebenefit(aka: cost savings, revenue, ROI, or some other financial metric) ofimplementedideas that sprang from the employee well. If you’re doing innovation right,then you’realreadybenchmarking this, of course, too!

Many companies use a points-based system to trackparticular activities within the innovation process: “Submitting an idea,” “Management approvesan idea,” or “idea gets implemented” are all goodevents to start tracking. Still other companies choose to simply share a monetary award based on the benefits received from a good idea.

It’s all about creating an incentive for employees to share ideas andfollow through onthe resulting new projects.Without that incentive, there is little motivation to strive beyond the daily expectations of their typicaljob function.

Another fairly simple suggestion you can put into play is to create a program for employees to write articles, knowledge base entries, contribute to publications, and make a name for themselves in their discipline. Even ifthese pieces are only used internally, the sharing of expertise isavery powerful way to become recognized for your knowledge and contributions to the company. Supporting employees in this way is asure-firemethod forgetting themto solve problems and share ideasthat they’ve seen work in different environments.All of thisdrives innovation to it’s peak.

Overcoming Adoption Horrors

When it comes to implementing any new innovation, no matter howrock solid the value proposition or business model, there is no guarantee that it will besuccessful. That’s because innovation, by definition, disrupts the status quo. In short,change scares people.

Customers, employees, partners – they could allresist (or flat-out reject) your latest effort or breakthrough simply because it’s different than what they’re used to. That’s fear of change, and theway to overcome it, is by educating the “fearful”.

Customers – Companies need to be creative, butforthright about how they educate consumers and clients about new products. While it’s not prudent to use your new product marketing efforts to explainevery implication and nuance of a new offering, that information needs to made available to the public at large, even if it contains some negative connotations.

Create a space on your website where customers can take a deeper dive into the product, answer their concerns, andlearn the details honestly from your company. Much better to do this that tohave a competitor or disgruntled customer exposing bad information that you tried to hide, and simply can’t refute. Companies need to be proactive and cover all the bases in their communications with the public.

Business Partners – When you introduce a new idea or product to market, your partners may fearconsquences that your organization is not even aware of. If the product is seen as a revolutionary replacement for something they already offer, or something that closes the gap between your existing product and a service that theyprovide, then you could have a mutiny on your hands.

Smart innovative companieskeep the channels of communication clear with partnersto expose any potential oversights or conflicts of interest.Create proactive communications materials that offer all the facts, explanations and comfortto yourpartners. Make sure you havelots of personal contact with thembefore and during the rollout, and schedule meetings to discuss any objections and feedbackthey have. This wayyou can uncoverany unseen negative aspects of your new offering, and smooth over any rough spots before they strike out on their own, or begin looking for another company to cohort with.

Employees – Some of thestrongest resistance to change you’ll ever encounter can come from the inside – directlyfrom your employee base. Trying to implement a more streamlined process in your organization,or takingsomething away in an effort to save money, is riskingseriousconsequences to morale and productivity.

Companies that do these things successfully do so by makinga concerted effort to communicate to employees thatmanagement is fully aware of all the threats a new innovation poses. Don’t try to enforce an overt “Do it or else”policy, unless you absolutely must.Instead devise ways to “enlist their willing participation”. Put employees in charge of projects and giveeveryone a stake in suggesting or voting on the ideas and programs yourcompany implements.

One of the ways companies have achieved majorsuccess in this area, isby implemeting and”all-hands-on-deck” approach to innovation. You can easily get this jump-started with asystem like Flagpole ( employees (and even customers and business partners) can have their input, submit ideas, leave feedback, and interact. You’ll find that by listening to yourstakeholders, andempowering them to help yousolve internal issues, they’ll feel more invested in the outcome. Everyonegetsexcited to see theirown seed projects and programs gain acceptance and come to life.

Build Your Own Innovation Factory

When it comes to keeping innnovation and creativity moving in your organization, we can all learn athing or two fromhistory’sgreatest inventor, Thomas Edison. While everyday corporate innovation usually doesn’t entail coming up with new inventions on a regular basis, one can easily draw a few parallels between the prolific inventor’s companyand your own business.

Arguably, Edison’s greatest innovation was perhaps not any single invention, but his own laboratory in Menlo Park, NJ. Edison set up an “Innovation Factory” of sorts , which demonstrated that anyone could produce a promising stream of innovations and ideas, if organized and executed correctly.

First he built a process for keeping himself and his workers on track. He created goals that stated that his shopwould produce “a minor innvention every 10 days and a major breakthrough every 6 months.”

You could do the same with your business innovations by setting realistic goalsfor the number and quality of ideas you want to find . Then,implementa tool to help you deliver onit: Issuechallenges to your “workers”to drive a constant, but focused flow of ideas through your “factory.”

Another hallmark of Edison’s constant innovation cycle was the fact that he reused (and sometimes re-purposed) good ideas and proven smaller inventions over and over. His phonograph used wiring that he created for telegraphs and an electric motor design that his shophad usedin several previous inventions.Good old Thomas wasn’t afraidto blend a few small,already tested elements to create a larger breakthrough concept.

Your organization could do exactly the same thing. By “warehousing” and regularlyrevisiting “not-ready-for-primetime” ideas that you capture along the way, you’ll begin to identify opportunitiesfor combining two, or maybe several, ideasinto larger projects like a breakthrough product or huge time saver.

You don’t need to build a laboratory in New Jersey,though. You can create your very own “Innovation Factory” right now withFlagpole ( Just set it up,publish your own business challenges, and let your innovators get busy solving problems, submittingideas, and collaborating rightaway.

Soon you’llbe meeting your goals of constant innovation. Thomas would be so proud!

Invite Others to Solve Your Problems

Up until recently, the standard formula for most companies to innovate probably consisted of a closed-loop, if not clandestine, team of individuals to brainstorm and develop ideas. While some great projects will undoubtedly come out ofthis approach, the ‘innovation group’ can only do so much. That fact alone could become abarrier for a very large organization trying to solve a host of internal problems.

In the software arena, of course, there exists the movement of Open Source development. It’s powerful because it invites users themselves to get involved and to essentially become “co-producers” of the products they are consuming. The pride of ownership that comes from seeing the project as “your baby”, and watching it grow and develop, is fulfilling and inspires a sense of loyalty among participants. What if you could do that, in some respect, for your company and its products?

Although Open Source has never becomethe industry coup some may have predicted, the concept is a strong one that can beapplied tootherindustries: By letting outsiders get involved, youre able to pool the talents and unique experience of the best people you can reach, in addition to the specialists inyour ownInnovation Team or R&D group.

When companies open up the innovation process, great things start to happen. You increase the likelihood of finding the “good” ideas: the ones that are viable, core to your business, and will produce ROI. Now youre gathering input from folks that offer unique perspectives on your business maybe an approach to a problem that your usual suspects would never even think of. Finally, and no less importantly, youre spreading goodwill and increasing loyalty among the participants. Customers continue to buy from companies that understand their wants and needs, and employees need to know that their input is valuable.

Invite others to help solve your problems and contribute to yourproducts with Flagpole ( Flagpole is an easy-to-implement web tool for gathering ideas and feedback from your audience: employees, product users, partners, and suppliers. Flagpole guarantees that our product willprovide you a return on your investment (ROI), or we’ll refund your costs, 100%. We also offer a free versionso companies can get started immediately with absolutely no risk.

Incremental Innovation

How would one go about eating an elephant? “One bite at a time”, is the standard reply.

Well, this is the jungle, and making your business succeed overtime isa “mammoth” job. But it’s one that can easily betackled with incremental innovation:Finding small, “bite-size” ways toimpact your organization.Implementing small, but constant, changes will aggregate over time to make a hugedifference in your business.

A fantastic, breakthroughproduct innovation can immediately boost the bottom line, but those don’t come along every day.Incremental innovation, on the other hand, can alsobuild success, and is a lot more dependable than relying on the “next big thing” eachquarter. Successful companies are ones that do thiswell,and they do itby putting a repeatable innovation processin place.

One easy way to get “sure-and-steady” innovationbubbling is by regularly broadcasting problemsthat you’re trying to solveto youremployees.You will regularlyand predictably start togetthe solutions, suggestions, and projectsyou need in a constant flow.

Flagpole( employs this methodologywithquick, straight-forward”Timed Challenges” thatinspire employees to get involved in solving your problems. You can even hold regular”Idea Drives”, or deadlined events that rewardthe best, most popular, or most talked-about submissions.

Being able to do this quickly and repeatably is the key, though! Doing it only sporatically, or not following up with results is simply not enough. We all know “Slow and Steady” will certainlywin the race,but become “Fast and Steady” with incremental improvements andyou’ll leave all the competition in the dust.