Problems With Open Collaboration

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.

Netflix Prize Announced

In my previous post about the Netflix Prize, I said that two teams had met the Netflix criteria and the race was too close to call.  Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has just today announced a winner: The BellKor Pragmatic Chaos team won out over The Ensemble for the $1 million prize.  Hastings said:

Teams that had previously battled it out independently joined forces to surpass the 10% barrier.

BellKor improved predictions for what movies people will like by 10.6 percent; so did The Ensemble, but BellKor submitted its final entry about 10 minutes before The Ensemble.

The Old Brand New

Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam
Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam

What is art?  And what is “new”?

I was asked to address these questions in an evening lecture in Amsterdam Tuesday night (15 September 2009), as the final evening in a series of seven monthly events that were called The Old Brand New.  The lecture series was curated by a collaborative group of organizations in Amsterdam, led by de Appel arts center.  And the theater was without doubt the most beautiful venue I’ve ever spoken in (see the image of the Stadsschouwberg at right).

The tension between the new and the old.  This tension has been central to art theory and practice for almost 100 years, so how much “new” could I add?  The core of my message was based in my own research on improvisational performance, both jazz and improv theater.  I played audio and video clips for the audience that demonstrated how improv performers are always walking the line between the old (stabilities and structures) and the new.

Ultimately, the same question is central to all social theory–how to explain the tension between the structures that guide and support us in social life (cultural practices, ways of speaking, social roles, institutions, workplaces) and the new and improvised things that we do every day?  Sociologists call this “the structure-agency dialectic” and I talked a little about that, too, in Amsterdam.

My talk was preceded by a lecture by the famous scholar Dick Hebdige (known for the book Subcultures), and followed by Q&A with Dick and I.  A video of the event should be available on their web site before too long: http://www.theoldbrandnew.nl

Do Tight Deadlines Make You Less Creative?

In fact there’s been a lot of research on this topic.  For the most part, I’ve cited a study by Teresa Amabile of Harvard showing that when people feel more time pressure, they are less creative.  Now I’ve read a new study* by Marcus Baer and Greg Oldham, that extends this finding.  One difference is that they examine a special kind of time pressure: “creative time pressure” which is, specifically, how much time pressure you feel when engaging in the more creative tasks at work–in contrast to deadline pressure for a more ordinary, non-creative task.  A second difference is that they separate employees into two personality groups: one that is high in openness to experience (which suggests they will have a broader repertoire of ideas and concepts) and one that is low; and, they separate employee context into “high support for creativity” and “low support for creativity.”

Consistent with prior studies, they found that as creative time pressure increases, the employees became less creative (as measured by their supervisors).  There was one exception: the group of employees that was HIGH in openness to experience, and also HIGH in support for creativity.  For that group, the relation between time pressure and creativity was not linear; instead, it was an inverted U shape.  That means that they were maximally creative with an intermediate level of time pressure; then, they became less creative with more time pressure but also with less time pressure.

Their recommendations: supervisors should try to identify the intermediate level of time pressure that is the sweet spot for creativity.  And they should make sure to assign people who are high in openness to experience to those conditions.  And finally, all managers should make sure that the environment is supportive of creativity and that employees perceive that to be the case.

*Baer and Oldham, 2006, “The curvilinear relation between experienced creative time pressure and creativity.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(4), 963-970.

India’s Tata Group

India’s Tata Group is perhaps the most successful of its mega corporations.  It goes way back: It built the nation’s first steel mill, the first power plant, and the first airline.  Tata has been in the news recently for designing and building a car that costs only $2,000 (and no, I didn’t leave off a zero!)

Business Week magazine reports* that Tata has made innovation a priority almost ever since India’s economy was opened up in 1991.  Before that, Tata and other Indian companies had been protected from international competition, and Tata new they’d need to step up their game in the absence of this protection.  It’s worked; so what are they doing to innovate?

1. Senior leadership is committed to innovation.  Chairman Ratan Tata made it a personal priority for the company. Then, he created a 12-member panel of senior executives that’s called the Tata Group Innovation Forum (TGIF–not sure I like this particular acronym in this context!)

2. Tata established formal systems for collecting, evaluating, and harvesting ideas.  They created multiple channels; small ideas are funded by the business unit; bigger ideas go to one of the company’s 19 innovation labs (research centers that are each focused on one technology or one sector); some ideas are funded by an incubator fund out of the CTO’s office.

3. Innovation is built into the annual review process and professional development process: it’s one of 9 categories of evaluation, and employees receive training (in the leadership institute and in a four-day Technovator workshop, for example).

4. The all-important “slack time” is available: 5 hours a week are available for personal projects. This could be developing an idea, but it could also be learning a new skill.

5. Social networking supports the process: an internal Digg-like social network called IdeaMax lets anyone submit an idea, and everyone can comment on and vote on all of the ideas.  CTO Ananth Krishnan reviews the top 10 ideas every quarter.

All of this is working: ten percent of last year’s revenues came from innovation.  One half of their customers can describe something about their product that is innovative.

*Jessie Scanlon, “How to build a culture of innovation. ” August 19, 2009 Business Week