Category Archives: Crowd-Sourcing

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.

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.

“Green” is Just Another Color of Innovation!

We posted a blog and press release last week abouta great new initiative for Earth Day. Flagpole wants tohelp companies become more “green” and “sustainable” by offering ourinnovation software. Theprogram was designed to assist companies that are not currently collecting ideas for Greeninitiatives and projects toquickly implement a solution forgathering suggestions in this area. Weknew that by applying the principles of Open Innovation, companies would find a lot of great ideas for improvement.

The reponse has been great and Flagpole has now implemented such “GreenIdea Challenge” sites for some of our existing customers, as well as some brand new organizations that we’ve never worked with before. We’ll be running our contests and “Green Idea Drives” through Earth Day, and somehave even chosen to extend the program indefinitely.We couldn’t be more thrilled to be helping companies honor Earth Day by becomingmore sustainable.

We look ahead and see another great opportunity for a similar event in the very near future -World Environment Day on June 5. Sanctioned by the United Nations’ Environment Programme, WED is a Global Effort to raise awareness,jumpstart local programs, and motivate folks towards a commonGreen goal. As Pittsburghers ourselves, MindMatters isproudthatourcity has been chosen as 2010’s North American Host City and we’ll beputting a lot of effort into special eventstohonor thisimportant day. More on all that later!

In the mean time, we would like to congratulate the companies that are taking part in our Earth Day initiative. We’re seeing some great Green ideas come in from all over the World and we honestly hope that success continues way beyond Earth Day!

Ben Franklin: Father of Collaborative Problem Solving?

In some of the most successful companies today, Innovation is constantly being pushed forwardby collaborative groups. Whether formally organized or not,teamslike thisuse a variety of tools available to share knowledge in a non-hierachical fashion.

You mightcall them ‘Communities of Practice’ or even’Innovation Committees’ at your company, but their function is to meet regularly toopenly discuss topics and information germane to their business. The goal is to solve problems through communication andto promote new ideas among the members.

Long before companies recognized and formalized any modern approach to innovation, one American forefather created what is recognized as thevery first collaborative group.Benjamin Franklin organized a group called Junto in Philadelphia which consisted of selected people fromdiverse backgrounds and varying occupations. Theymet regularly, usually in a tavern, tohave discussions and try to solve the political issues of the day. Franklinfelt that a braintrust of people with different perspectives would solve moreproblems fasterthan any lone individualever could. The small,dynamic clubdiscussed anything from philosophical questionsto community problems, political issues, and business affairs.

Franklin’sJunto obviously didn’t have coolweb 2.0tools oremailto faciliate the sharing of knowledge. They did their thinginan open forum that met weekly and listened to eachother speakabout mutually agreed-upontopics. The key to theirproductivity was strong organizationand a feeling of equity among its participants. Theyfollowed a formal order at meetings in which everyone hadthefloorto sharethoughts in a respectful environment. Does your company do this for it’s employees?

Imagine what you could do with a similar model using the tools available today.That’s what Flagpole’s ( about!

You can easily implement a simple, standardized process forsharingideas and knowledgewithin your organization. Your “Discussion Topics” will become the”Challenges” that you share outwardly. Your”JuntoMembers” areyour employeesorcoworkers, whowill share their unique perspectives to help you build on ideas and solve problems.

Finding New Areas for Innovation

In many companies, innovation is only focused on finding ways to directly improve the product or service they offer. In reality, there are many opportunities to innovate that you may not even be thinking of.

By analyzing the entire breadth of the customer’s interaction with your products, you’ll uncovernew strategies for differentiating hidden aspects of your offering from your competitors’. You can begin to do this by asking customers (and employees that interface with customers) key questions like these and analyzing the findings…

  • How do customers discover their need for your products?
    Are customer aware that you can satisfy their need? Do they even know they have a need in the area that your product or service covers? There may be a better way to create the feelings of need or desire for your solution.
  • How do customers find and purchase your offering?
    You may need to make your product easier to search for, find, order, or purchase. Can you make the availability of your product more prominent or your advertising more ubiquitous?
  • How do customers make their final selection?
    Maybe you can find a new way to help your customers narrow down the possibilities, or make it easier or more convenient for them to make a selection in your marketplace.
  • How is your product or service delivered?
    How does it get in the hands of the customer and what happens once it’s there? Can you make this experience better, faster, or less costly for them or you?
  • What is your customer using your product for?
    Can you change or add new ways for them to use (or reuse) your product?
  • What are the difficult things about using your product?
    Can you make this experience better? What are the common Customer support issues? Can you change something to make it easier to use?
  • How is your product supported or repaired?
    Can you change the methods of fixing products or resolving issues? Can you eliminate some problems entirely? Would spending money to change or redesign something now save you a lot in support costs?

These are just SOME of the many areas you can improve by learning more about people’s experiences and interactions with your company’s offerings. It all starts with gathering feedback and interacting with customers and employees. They KNOW what the problems are and they WILL tell you if you ask.

With Flagpole (, you can present questions like these to your audience to get honest responses that could help you innovate in new areas that your competitors aren’t even thinking about.

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.