Category Archives: Collaboration

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.


Innovation: Do customers really know what they want?

In an article by Tim Kastelle, entitled, “Innovation Opportunity: People Don’t Know What They Want” uses the example of selling Coke to demonstrate how people (when solicited) don’t really know why they are buying something. This hits at the heart of crowdsourcing which taps the knowledge of this same group of people to innovate.  You decide.

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.

A Fictional Example of Innovation

Tara had just finished visiting with her largest customer, a network of 13 hospitals in her county. She had met with many people that day, but one meeting in particular had stood out. She had met with Dr. George Freeman, chief of surgery, who explained the problem they were having with their aging set of surgical instruments.   Dr. Freeman explained that they have the budget and are prepared to buy new sets, but they have one major reservation with the ones that Tara’s company makes.  They are uncomfortable for left-handed surgeons, and George happens to be left-handed.  He goes on to explain that without something different, the sale will go to Tara’s competitor.

Tara knows that this is a major problem.  This hospital system is a major customer and purchases millions of dollars of products from her company.  Letting her competitor get an advantage like this could be devastating.  Tara takes her problem to her supervisor.
Tara works in the marketing department and presents her issue to the group.  She explains Dr. Freeman’s problem, and how they’ll lose the sale without a change.  Tara champions a suggestion made by Dr. Freeman, which simply involved moving the finger clasp about 20 degrees off center.  Tara is familiar with her company’s manufacturing capabilities and realizes that although this is a significant change, they can (and have) made this accommodation in the past.  After they talk with a few others in marketing, they realize that this is their only chance to make the sale, and take their issue to the engineering department.

A few days later, a meeting is scheduled with engineering, and they make their presentation.  The engineering group has assembled their senior engineers, and they’re joined by the company’s controller and manufacturing VP.  Tara prepared slides outlining the issue, and she documents how sales will likely increase substantially as a result.  No one else has instruments with this capability.  Engineering spends a few days and designs a new set of instruments, noting that the clasp should only be moved 19 degrees off center.   Preliminary mock-ups prove the point, and the change to manufacturing is estimated at $850k (a fraction of what the potential sales will be).  Finance approves the money and the project is started.

Tara’s company is responsive, voice-of-the-customer oriented, and innovative.  They addressed the need of a major customer, secured new sales revenue, and improved their product.  But did they really do the best that they could?

Tara’s company has repeated the missteps of many organizations.  They answered the question for an important sale, but they really didn’t innovate.  Find out how using MindMatters’ processes and the Innovator™ software system can make supercharge your organization.  Click here to request a copy. Collaboration

Ann Augustine has written some very interesting articles about innovation and collaboration. You can check out her blog at:

Another Look at Collaboration

It’s hard to find examples where large-scale collaboration has worked more successfully than either individuals or small teams. However, it’s also hard to find examples of even small teams that were able to maintain their creative success over an individual.

Having worked with many such teams, it seems that there is a “Familiarity Factor” that can make or break success. While I don’t have an exact definition for the Familiarity Factor, I think that it has to do with the relative connection that each person has to the other in terms of daily interactions, previous social connections, and personality. Since these connections constantly change (even by the act of collaborating), maintaining a team’s creativity is nearly impossible, because it requires making frequent changes to the team, sometimes difficult changes, to keep the connection-level of the Familiarity Factor the same.

Think about the last time you were a member of a new team. Assuming that your team had a realistic goal and a realistic timeline, you probably came together and accomplished your goals with some amount of success. You didn’t know all of the other team members very well, you probably even found yourself not liking some of the team members, but you pushed through the exercise to accomplish the goal. Now think about when they “got the same team back together” for another project. The familiarity has increased, you’re more comfortable, the other members are more comfortably, and your less likely to “bend” for the good of the team. The creativity and accomplishments decrease. Even for the best performing teams, over time, this happens.

As another example, consider musical groups. It’s hard to think of many groups that stay together for very long. In most cases, they come together for a few collaborations, and then inevitably split apart. My guess is that the familiarity increases past a point where creativity can occur, in part due to the original closeness, new social connections that are made, and of course, personality.

Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, analyzed the collaborations behind thousands of Broadway productions. He discovered that plays produced by people who knew each other well in addition to plays produced by teams who didn’t know each other at all were more likely to fail (as defined by the box office and critics). What Uzzi discovered was there was only a small window between the two extremes that produced successful plays.

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.

Employee Engagement and Creativity

In research published in the Psychological Bulletin from the American Psychological Association, the question of whether employee engagement leads to success was addressed. The authors examined over 200 previous studies looking specifically for this correlation. In their research, success was defined across a variety of areas, including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health. They defined happiness and/or employee engagement as “the frequent experience of positive emotions.”

Shawn Achor suggests several ways to boost or enhance employee engagement in the business environment, and he tested it by asking tax preparers (during one of the most stressful times of the year–tax season) to perform these activities. The bottom line is that it worked, not only in the short-term, but also months after these activities were stopped.

    Jot down three things they were grateful for.
    Write a positive message to someone in their social support network.
    Meditate at their desk for two minutes.
    Exercise for 10 minutes.
    Take two minutes to describe in a journal the most meaningful experience of the past 24 hours.

The researchers also tested whether positive employee engagement was linked with creativity, and found many positive correlations. While they acknowledged that creativity at times requires deliberate negativity or a single-minded focus, there were still benefits to working to make sure that your organization is at least supporting “positive emotions.”

Innovative Combinations: Chocolate and Peanut Butter

We’re all familiar with the television commercials of the unlikely and innovative combinations of chocolate and peanut butter to create the Reese’s cup. I’ve found that for many organizations, the best ideas have been an innovative combination of two or more different elements into something different.

Michael Michalko wrote an interesting article describing this exact phenomenon:
The lawn mower, for example, was invented in the cloth making industry by Edwin Budding who worked on a machine that trimmed cloth smooth using revolving blades and rollers. He combined this concept with the scythe, which was commonly used to trim grass, attached a handle so it could be pushed and the first lawn mower was born.

So, why is this the case? In my opinion it’s because we tend to work in silos. Silos are created by experiences (engineers vs. accountants), ages (my generation vs. yours), geographies (Florida vs. Maine), politics, bosses, departments, customers, market segments, competitors, and so on. They’re unavoidable. The key to creating innovative combinations is to cross those boundaries with your ideas and make them better. By talking with different people, not only from within your own department/location, but also from other organizations, you create more powerful combinations. Next time your looking for good ideas, call a meeting with your engineers and marketers–it will surely be interesting.

Research Towards Innovation

Using research to breed innovation can be essential for your business. It is said that the more that you know, the more that you can do with what you know.

Research, unlike R&D (research and development) is more like a long term commitment whereas with R&D it focuses on the short term. Looking beyond your business current practices, research can produce slow and steady growth for your business.

Unfortunately, research comes with costs involved. Many companies in this economy have cut spending in all departments of their business and this may have affected or axed their budget on research. This can be a very shortsighted decision as this may save money right now but has the potential for your business to come out the loser in the long run.

Research does not have to been a huge expense. If you use customer feedback to your advantage, it is a form of research. By tapping into a consumers wants and needs, you can find out a great deal of knowledge that can be practically applied to your business. Acquiring feedback can be as simple as a meeting with your customer, picking up the phone to call them or by sending them an email. What you learn from these interactions can help grow your business.