Open Innovation and Other Foolish Ideas

Here’s something I wrote for Fast Company magazine last week.

Open source or distributed innovation is all the rage at the moment, but the hype glosses over one important fact — most open source projects are total failures. But this fact is precisely why the open source innovation movement is so important.

Within traditional innovation models, the cost of failure is very high. As a result, stage gates, red lights, and funnels are introduced to control the number of new ideas that are developed and introduced in to the market. And that’s the problem.

Nobody can ever know for sure what will work and what won’t, until an individual makes a leap of faith and a surge of innovation is unleashed. Moreover, nobody can tell what’s silly and what isn’t without the benefit of hindsight. But with open innovation, researching and worrying about whether something will work or not is unnecessary because of the low cost of trying. Just do it and you’ll find out.

My own experience of open innovation within large organizations is relatively modest. The reason for this is that the idea is too new and unproven. Organizations like the sound of it in theory, but in practice relinquishing control to scores of unknown individuals scares the pants off them. Business, after all, is about order and control.  But if they’re right then why do only 40% of major technical innovations come from large corporations?

Anyway, I’ve been playing with the idea myself of late. My first experiment was a little online trends newsletter called What’s Next. This isn’t openly created, because I create all the content myself, but I do receive a tremendous amount of user feedback so the business model is openly filtered. As a result the idea has been revamped several times, and while the current version isn’t perfect, it’s one hundred times better than when it started.

The key learning here is that the innovation process has been inverted. Previously, I would have worked up a handful of promising ideas and put them into focus groups to establish which concept was ‘right.’ I would have then polished up the winning concept and put it on the market. In other words, I would have created something, edited it, and then ‘published’ it.  But these days you can also do it the other way around. You can create, then publish, and then let your customers edit the concept for you, especially if your product is digital or if it’s a service innovation.

My latest collaborative experiment in home-brewed innovation is something called Homepage Daily, which is an online newspaper.  Will this work? I have no idea but the users will undoubtedly let me know. The point here (and most large organizations outside of the US at least really don’t get this) is that there is no lasting humiliation in giving it a go. You can fail like crazy and still keep going until you eventually stumble on success. Of course this presents big organizations with something of a problem. How can they fail like crazy without looking like idiots? The answer, in open innovation terms, is to facilitate and empower every employee, customer and stakeholder to become part of the innovation team and to then encourage them to perform small experiments.

For example, Mozilla Corp is the company behind Firefox, the wildly successful Internet browser. The company has 70 employees and almost 200,000 volunteer helpers. Moreover, Firefox 1.0 was developed, not on purpose, but by two renegade young programmers that went off in the wrong direction just because it felt right.

The idea of open or distributed innovation obviously links with other ideas like the wisdom of crowds, but the link I like the most is with James G. March’s idea of foolishness in organizations. March is a professor emeritus at Stanford Business School and one of his key insights is that companies need to mess around more.

What I think he means by this is that people should try more things out even if rationally they seem like silly ideas. For example, people should incorporate more ideas from outside their domain, or even make mistakes on purpose just to see where this takes them.  It’s a bit like going on holiday. You can follow the guidebooks but often the most interesting and useful experiences come when you put the guidebook down and walk down an unknown street for no particular reason.

Of course, the idea of setting up an innovation process focused on making deliberate mistakes is itself a silly idea. At the moment, most organizational innovation strategies and processes are too sequential and too rigid. But moving to some kind of ‘anything goes’ system would be equally disastrous.

What’s needed is a balance — a combination of tight and loose, where 85-90% of internal resources are spent on internal innovation that is tightly planned and controlled. The remaining 10-15% of time and money should then be spent on unplanned ideas that are developed by simply releasing them into the wild and seeing what happens.

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