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.

Reality Show Innovation

Here’s an interesting tidbit from Business Week magazine:  Last year, Best Buy selected four groups of salespeople, all in their early 30s, and had them live together for 10 weeks in an LA apartment.  Think “Real World” meets creative collaboration.  One successful idea that emerged from this hothouse is the “Best Buy Studio”, which provides web design services for small businesses.  The person who had the initial idea said “we talked about business models while making spaghetti.”

This is a rather extreme version of what I call an “innovation lab” in my book GROUP GENIUS.  Innovative companies have been finding success with this technique for at least a decade: relocate a cross-functional group of ten to fifteen people to a new location for anywhere from two weeks to three months; release them from all day-to-day responsibilities; and charge them with coming up with great new ideas.

Whirlpool has a similar effort under way called “Real Whirled”. They send 8 sales reps to a house in Benton Harbor, Michigan for seven weeks.

The manager who ran Best Buy’s “real world” idea incubator, John Wolpert, had previously done it at IBM–in their “Extreme Blue” incubator in Austin, Texas.  If you’re interested, he charges $75,000 for each ten-week session (that includes room and board).

Do Apple Computers Make You More Creative?

If you like this post, you’re going to love my book! Check it out:

Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration

Apple’s corporate image is one of the creative iconoclast; their motto, “Think Different.” Their products look great. Artsy people like graphic designers, photographers, and film directors choose Apples.

Does the ad campaign work? Does the average person-in-the-street think of Apple computers as being more creative? A recent study done at Duke University’s Fuqua school of business provides some evidence that it does. This research has been all over the newspapers and even on NPR, so you may have already heard the take-home message: research subjects were shown an image of either Apple’s corporate logo or IBM’s corporate logo, and immediately afterwards they were given a creativity test. The subjects who’d seen the Apple logo scored higher on the creativity test. Ready-made message for news reporters: Apple really does make people “think different”. I’m sure Apple’s PR department was high-fiving over this free publicity!

But the details of the study haven’t been reported at all, and when you look at the details, the message is more complex. First of all, the test used to measure “creativity” has some problems; it’s from a research article published back in 1958, and all it asks is “think of as many unusual uses as possible for a brick.” (It’s called the “unusual uses test”.) This is a measure of what creativity researchers call “divergent thinking” and it isn’t really what most of us mean when we talk about creativity. And in fact, no studies have been able to prove that a higher score on divergent thinking tests translates into real-world creative output. Second, the difference between seeing Apple or IBM was very small. The 219 subjects who saw an Apple logo, on average, wrote down 7.68 uses; the 122 who saw IBM wrote down 6.10. When independent judges rated the creativity of the answers, Apple answers got a rating of 8.44, IBM answers a rating of 7.98. These differences were statistically significant, but it’s not hard for small differences to reach statistical significance when you have so many subjects; it’s well-known in psychological research that a greater number of subjects raises the significance of the finding. And furthermore, when the researchers added a third experimental condition–no brand logo shown at all–the Apple subjects did not score significantly higher than these “no brand” subjects (they still scored higher than IBM subjects, though).

The researchers later did another experiment where they first measured how much each subject valued creativity–how much they wanted to be creative. Those who scored low on this measure, who didn’t really want to be creative, showed no differences on the unusual uses test with either Apple or IBM logos. But those who scored highly showed a difference, coming up with about 8 unusual uses for the brick in the Apple condition, but just barely over 5 in the IBM condition, and just barely over 5 in the no-brand condition. (And, the independent judges rated the Apple uses as being the most creative of all three conditions.)

One final interesting fact about this study: in the first experiment, the Apple and IBM logos were flashed on the screen for only about 13 milliseconds, so briefly that no one was consciously aware they had seen the logo. This was a subliminal effect. In the second experiment, the one that asked about your motivation to be creative, the subjects actually saw (and manipulated) images of generic-looking computers, with either an Apple or IBM logo prominently displayed on the computer’s monitor (or no computers at all, in the no brand condition).

You know how your car always seems to run better after you take it to the car wash? Of course, it runs exactly the same as before you washed it. In the same way, when you use a product that you associate with creativity, you should feel more creative (even though you’re probably not). However, discovering that exposure to corporate logos changed their score on a test is intriguing. I wouldn’t call the “unusual uses test” a measure of creativity; but the experiment makes you wonder, nonetheless. Should Apple feel proud about the results of this research? The headline would be very different if it read “Staring at Apple computers helps you think of strange ways to use a brick.”