Innovation When You Least Expect It February 14, 2013Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks, Organizational innovation.
Tags: absolut, absolut tune, breakthrough innovation group, fareed zakaria, general mills, hemispheres, intuit, kimberly-clark, pernod ricard
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I’m in San Francisco to give a talk, and I flew here on United. I discovered that this month’s in-flight magazine has a special section on innovation! I have to admit, I rarely even open the in-flight magazines when I travel, so this is the last thing I was expecting.
It starts with an interview with Fareed Zakaria. I didn’t know he had thought much about innovation, but based on this interview, he’s clearly read the right books and understands the research consensus on how innovation works:
Zakaria has discovered that true innovation isn’t merely the product of a great idea, but a ripple that tends to spread out in unforeseen ways.
Yes, unpredictable and improvisational–like jazz or improv theater.
Another quotation from Zakaria:
[What's behind an extraordinary idea] is the interaction between human beings. That depends on openness, because open systems tend to be much more innovative.
That’s why my 2007 book on innovation is called Group Genius, and I call these maximally innovative open systems “collaborative webs.”
Another short article in the issue mentions the massive innovation in the craft brewing business, and also mentions Pernod Ricard’s new Breakthrough Innovation Group, which has come up with new beverages like Absolut Tune. (I’m all for innovation in the beverage sector!) They go on to point out that Kimberly-Clark conducts “expert acceleration sessions”; Intuit organizes “lean start-ins”, and General Mills has two “innovation squads.” (p. 83)
I’ll have to start paying more attention to those in-flight magazines!
*David Carr. “The Hemi Q&A: Fareed Zakaria.” Hemispheres magazine, February 2013, p. 72-73, 130.
KANEKO: Creativity in Omaha April 5, 2012Posted by keithsawyer in Genius Groups, Innovative networks, Regional innovation.
Tags: bow truss, hal france, jun kaneko
Tonight, I’m giving the keynote talk at a big event at KANEKO, a creative space in the historic center of Omaha, created by artists Jun and Ree Kaneko. KANEKO is an “Open Space for Your Mind” that aims to foster creativity in the arts, sciences, and philosophy. As one of their brochures puts it,
KANEKO is a new kind of organization–not a museum–not a gallery–not solely a library nor a research center–but a space for minds that nurtures and promotes creativity in the arts, sciences, business, and philosophy…an open space in which creativity and innovation are freely explored.
KANEKO has been responsible for bringing to Omaha thought leaders including Ken Robinson, Nicholas Kristof, and Daniel Levitin, and also creators like Roseanne Cash and Joan Acocella.
It’s a beautiful space, a converted warehouse with a Bow Truss ceiling. My keynote talk is on creativity and collaboration, so it’s really cool that tonight’s event also includes an improvised music performance along with a group creativity activity for the entire audience. Thanks to Executive Director Hal France for making this event happen!
Changing Places February 22, 2012Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks, Organizational innovation.
Tags: idea labs, innovation, knowledge management, reassignment, shadowing
When workers change departments for a short time–for example, shadowing another employee in a totally different part of the organization–it enhances the innovation potential of the entire organization. That’s because it results in more “weak links” throughout the organization’s social network. And from research, we know that creativity is more likely to result when information flows through these weak links–because it brings together diverse types of knowledge into surprising new combinations.
Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal* describes many companies that are successfully using this strategy:
To help workers sharpen their skills, stay motivated and identify new roles they might aim for in the future. Moreover, they help address a challenge that many companies are facing: how to better foster collaboration across different specialties and regions.
An Intel, employees can find temporary assignments by searching an internal database. This program just launched last March, and already 1,300 positions have been filled. Other companies finding success with this approach include Virgin America and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
My book Group Genius explains why this works: Because it helps resolve the challenge of “knowledge management.” How do you get information moving through the organization effectively, particularly across organizational boundaries? In addition to this “shadowing” technique, other knowledge management techniques help accomplish the same goal:
- “Idea labs” that bring cross-disciplinary teams together for one or two weeks
- Job descriptions that are broad, allowing each employee to cross multiple areas
- More frequent reassignment of staff
Research shows that all of these methods help to diffuse tacit knowledge–the kind of knowledge that’s hard to capture in computerized knowledge management systems, or in formal documents. And research shows that it’s this tacit knowledge that, more often than not, results in innovation.
*Lauren Weber and Leslie Kwoh, “Co-workers change places.” Wall Street Journal, Tuesday February 21, 2012, p. B8.
Google Buys Motorola: The Real Story August 22, 2011Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks.
Tags: Apple, innovation, intellectual property, microsoft, non-practicing entities, patent trolls
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This is big news: Google buys Motorola for $12.5 billion. Why buy a mobile phone company that’s struggling? What makes it worth so much money? Why does Google want to get into the hardware business, anyway?
Everyone in the industry understands the real reason: Google wants Motorola’s 17,000 patents. Google doesn’t intend to use the patents to invent new products; instead, they intend to use the patents as defensive tools in an obscure but critical corporate battlefield: intellectual property law. Last month, a coalition of companies including Apple and Microsoft paid $4.5 billion for the 6,000 patents of Nortel Networks. Google felt threatened; they needed a comparable pool of patents to seriously compete in the legal battles that are guaranteed to follow.
The reason why legal battles are guaranteed is that every company is vulnerable. There are so many patents on software ideas, and they’re so vaguely and broadly written, that every company might be said to be in violation of something. Google’s chief lawyer recently wrote “A smartphone might involve as many as 250,000 patent claims” that are probably questionable, but still you have to defend against those claims in court. So what happens is that the big guys get their lawyers and accountants together in a room, and they trade patents like poker chips. Eventually, they come to an agreement not to sue one another, sometimes in exchange for a supplementary cash payment (if everyone agrees that one pool of patents is worth more than another).
Apple, Microsoft, and Google are mature companies and they’ll work out a deal. What everyone is more worried about are the so-called “patent trolls.” These are companies that don’t make anything; they only exist to sue other companies for violating their patents. (The nice term for them is “non-practicing entities.”) You can’t negotiate with them because they don’t need anything that you have; they only want a cash settlement.
Is this the way to foster maximum innovation? I’m not a lawyer, but I have to believe the answer is NO.
Also see my previous posts on patent law:
Star Wars Uncut September 29, 2010Posted by keithsawyer in Genius Groups, Innovative networks.
Tags: casey pugh, emmy, lucasfilm, star wars uncut, starwarsuncut
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At the Emmy awards in 2010, Casey Pugh’s Star Wars Uncut won an award. This is an Internet project that invited fans to submit their own versions of their favorite 15-second scenes from the movie. After receiving hundreds of submissions, some made with Legos or pets, and others mash-ups with parodies from the cartoon South Park and other sources, Pugh had fans vote on their favorites, and edited the most popular clips together and then added the original musical soundtrack for continuity. (However, he doesn’t yet have permission from LucasFilm to use the soundtrack, but you can buy it from Amazon.com and play it yourself along with Star Wars Uncut.)
What a wonderful example of group genius, crowdsourcing, the wisdom of crowds…choose your favorite term for the new kind of collective creativity that is enabled by the Internet. Of course, it couldn’t happen without the structure and form provided by the original movie; it’s not some free-form improvisation, it’s more like a series of embellishments on a theme.
Star Wars itself–the original movie–was itself a sort of mash-up of previously existing material. Few of the visual elements that Lucas used were themselves original. Film historians point out that many of Lucas’s visuals were taken from past movies: the lightsabers and Jedi Knights were inspired by Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress; the robot C-3PO was a character straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Han Solo resembles Butch Cassidy. And the story, as is widely known, is based on common mythical elements analyzed by Joseph Campbell. It’s often said of Lucas that “he didn’t actually invent anything” (Seabrook, 1997, p. 48).*
*Seabrook, J. (1997, January 6). Why is the force still with us? The New Yorker, 40-53.
Problems With Open Collaboration September 22, 2009Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks.
Tags: booz&co, IBM, open, open collaboration, open innovation, open source, P&G, strategy+business
A recent article in Strategy+Business (a magazine published by booz&co) notes the pitfalls of open collaboration: tapping into the power of emergent, bottom-up social networks to generate innovation. The companies that have been successful with it are well known: IBM with its innovation jams, and P&G with its open innovation strategy. But other companies often struggle to realize the benefits. The article’s basic premise is that open collaboration is similar to the “quality” movements of the 1980s (remember TQM?) The article notes:
Today, practitioners of open collaboration are picking up, in some ways, where the quality movement left off. They are working to tap the knowledge and creativity of a broad range of constituents, including employees and suppliers. In the process they are also rethinking their organizational structures and systems. Most important, at the core of both the quality and open collaboration movements (and sometimes it’s unclear where one leaves off and the other begins) are the values of trial-and-error learning, open communication, and systems thinking. Both movements recognized that employees — given the right tools, training, and management environment — are in the best position to do the analysis needed for meaningful improvement and innovation.
So what held back the quality movement? Hierarchical thinking; truly listening to the ideas of the rank and file; making the long-term commitment to professional development and cultural change. Of the seven suggestions the article lists for better success, I found three compelling: (1) Build a culture of trust and open communication; (2) Build a flexible innovation infrastructure; (3) Align evaluations and rewards.
Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds July 24, 2009Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks.
Tags: harnessing crowds, open innovation, open source, steve lohr, Thomas Malone, wisdom of crowds
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We’ve heard a lot about collective intelligence, Web 2.0. Internet-based examples abound: Wikipedia, Google, Threadless. Thomas Malone and colleagues have written a new article proposing an analytic framework to help us think about these networks, what they call the “building blocks” or “genes” of collective intelligence. Of course, I wanted to see how their framework compares to my own “collaborative web” model from Group Genius. Based on a study of 250 examples of web communities, here’s what they propose.
The four building blocks are answers to these questions: Who is doing the task? Why? What is being done? How? How these questions are answered determines which “gene” it is.
The Who question has two genes: (1) Hierarchical organization determines who. (2) Crowd gene: Anyone can participate.
The Why question has three genes: (1) Money (2) Intrinsic motivation of the task (3) fame or reputation.
The What question has two genes: (1) Create something new; (2) Select among alternatives.
The How question has two genes for each of the what genes, depending on whether it is independent or collective. For “Create” the two genes are Collect independent contributions and Collaborate together. For “Select” the two genes are Group decisions (Aggregate individual group decisions by voting or consensus etc.) and Individual decisions, through markets or social networks.
Then continuing the biological analogy, they analyze specific examples of web-based collaboration and call them “genomes.”
This is a useful way of breaking down different web-based communities, although I found it not very surprising or new. The key thing that’s missing from this model is what I think is the biggest challenge facing such communities: What is the right degree of central control and structure? Communities with no central structure are usually a huge mess. Linux succeeds only because of a strong central guiding body, led by Linus Torvalds. The model presented in this article seems most appropriate for tasks where no central control is necessary, where small items are created that don’t need to coordinate with each other in complex systems (in Wikipedia each entry stands alone; with Threadless, each t-shirt design is independent). But with Linux, everything has to work together. That’s a key variable missing from this model, but I have no doubt Malone and colleagues are aware of this and are thinking about it. (The 7/19/2009 NYTimes article by Steve Lohr, where Prof. Malone was interviewed, explicitly addresses this topic.) Perhaps another paper will emerge from the same research study.
*Thomas W. Malone, Robert Laubacher, and Chrysanthos Dellarocas. February 2009. Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome of Collective Intelligence.
Innovation in the 19th Century July 10, 2009Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks, New research.
Tags: locomotives, mobility of workers, ross thompson, sewing machines, structures of change, technological innovation, workforce mobility
I’ve just been reading a fascinating new book, Structures of Change in the Mechanical Age, by Ross Thompson (published 2009). It’s a fairly detailed study of technological innovation from 1790 through 1865, in a range of industries. Several histories have been written about how innovation systems emerged in the late 19th century: systems that included universities and technical institutes, research laboratories, and government agencies. Thomas Edison’s research laboratory, with its structured approach to invention, flourished in the late 19th century. But Thompson’s book is the first one to examine the innovation systems of the antebellum U.S.
The conclusion that I find the most intriguing is that, even in this early period, innovation occurred more rapidly in collaborative webs–networked groups of creators. As Thompson writes, “early in the development of any innovation, inventors and users formed networks that communicated technological knowledge and addressed problems….Networks sped diffusion by building on already high mobility among firms…For the economy as a whole, innovation consisted of a number of paths, each resting on distinct knowledge transmitted in different networks” (p. 315).
Thompson studied thirteen technologies that experienced significant patenting during this period: 1660 inventors from 1836 through 1865 that received over 6,900 patents. The inventors who were networked with others were about two-fifths of all inventors. The networked inventors averaged 2.8 patents whereas the non-networked inventors averaged only 1.9. Many innovations occurred when inventors moved from one field to another. Machinists spread machine-tool techniques as they moved among industries (locomotives, sewing machines, and shoe machines). Engineers used canal methods to build railroads (p. 316). I leave you with this important statement:
“The mobility of workers supported development in a wide range of sectors.” (p. 316)
Idea Sharing in Nonprofits March 3, 2009Posted by keithsawyer in Innovative networks, Organizational innovation.
Tags: intellectual property, IP, kidsmart, lawrence lessig, ngos, non governmental organizations, nonprofits
The intellectual property issues just keep coming up! (See my previous posts on IP issues.) Maybe I should go back to law school…
This morning, I was interviewed by a team of researchers at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden; they are studying collaborative innovation networks and how they can contribute to transformational change towards a sustainable society. Then, I read an article in the New York Times, an interview with Lawrence Lessig (famous advocate of creative commons licensing and other radical changes to copyright and patent).
My discussion over Skype to Sweden was focused on nonprofit organizations (in the rest of the world, they’re called non-governmental organizations or NGOs). Anyone who works with nonprofit organizations has noted their seeming inability to collaborate, their need to keep control over their sphere of activity. And accompanying this is a frustrating tendency to reinvent the wheel–for multiple nonprofits to be operating in the same space, with the same mission, when their target audience could be much better served if they joined forces. I thought that perhaps this was a uniquely American problem, so I asked if they thought Swedish nonprofits collaborated well–their response was to laugh. In fact, they were the ones who brought up the phrase “reinvent the wheel.” So we know at least it’s not limited to the U.S.
So how do we foster collaboration and sharing among nonprofits? The intellectual property scholars, like Lessig, have argued that the current IP regime blocks collaboration by granting too strong an ownership right to creators. (I argued this as well, in the final chapter of my book Group Genius.) The ownership right (patent or copyright) allows the creator to charge whatever he or she wants for the privilege of using it, or blocking its use altogether. Lessig has argued for mandatory licensing at a government-specified usage fee.
But when it comes to nonprofits, people aren’t motivated by profit. The incentives are very different, and I don’t have a good understanding of what they are–genuine desire to help the underprivileged…but if that’s the motivation, then why isn’t there more collaboration? Maybe it’s a big ego, the sincere belief that you know best how to help the underprivileged. Maybe it’s the “founder mentality” that you see in so many venture-capital startups, where the organization is so closely identified with the founder, and the founder (who remains the executive director) has difficulty delegating or sharing authority.
I don’t think nonprofits patent their business models; I don’t think they should! I’m thinking of a local St. Louis organization, KidSmart, that provides school supplies to students who can’t afford to buy pencils and notebooks. There are similar organizations in cities around the country; none of them are paying royalties to the very first such outfit (and that’s a good thing). They borrow ideas from each other all the time. But what if another nonprofit started up in St. Louis, doing the exact same thing? Wouldn’t that be odd–why wouldn’t those folks just join on with KidSmart? That hasn’t happened…but similarly odd things happen all the time (thus the phrase “reinventing the wheel”).
So maybe the “creative commons” is the right way to think about innovation in the nonprofit sector. (I don’t think it’s a good model for for-profit innovation, by the way.) But we need more research on exactly what motivates nonprofit volunteers and workers, and what forms of collaboration and idea exchange will result in the greatest benefit to the greatest number of needy people.