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Sunday, August 02, 2009

Is Innovation Helped or Hurt by Self-Censorship?

I came across this interesting perspective on the blog of Mark Turrell, CEO of idea management software company Imaginatik, in his post Myth #3: "We need lots of ideas":
  • The next time someone tells you that you need lots of ideas, stop, think and work out the outcomes you want before you go collecting thousands, and thousands, and potentially more thousands of fluffy, non-relevant ideas that go nowhere.

The gist of Mark's post is that encouraging the contribution of ideas from all quarters is actually counterproductive. He prescribes the concept of an "appropriate" number of ideas.

Wow. Really?

The post makes some good points, but I'm not in agreement with its overall tone. As I read the post, it struck me that there are really only two ways to reduce the number of ideas:
  • Limit who gets to contribute ideas

  • Have everyone self-censor ideas that they "know" will be noise

This perspective is quite different from the tenets that are driving the Enterprise 2.0 movement. There are three elements of Enterprise 2.0 that are relevant here:
  1. Emergence

  2. Filters

  3. Culture

One disclaimer. My company is Spigit, which provides an enterprise innovation platform. We integrate social software heavily into our application, so naturally my take on Mark's post will differ. But readers of this blog know I've been part of the Enterprise 2.0 field for a while. Perhaps my perspective isn't so surprising.

On to it then!


Are ideas the province of a privileged few?

Emergence is a cornerstone of Enterprise 2.0. The principle says that ideas and knowledge are found throughout an organization, not just in the executive suite. In the daily rhythms of their work, employees everywhere build up an immense trove of experience and learnings. They encounter the "why don't we?" questions every day. It's tapping these ideas and knowledge that drives the value proposition of Enterprise 2.0, and is reshaping the corporate workplace.

In the graphic to the right, Dion Hinchcliffe provides a basis for considering traditional software versus social software. There is, obviously, a need for both inside companies. For instance, financial accounting is not an emergent activity. The SEC and FASB have very specific standards for companies to follow. Auditors have a series of criteria they use to confirm the integrity of a company's financial statements. Centralized control and access are important here.

Innovation, on the other hand, does not have similar constraints. There are really two limits for business innovation:
  • Do ideas meet the strategic direction of the company?

  • Does the company have the resources to turn an idea into an innovation?

The nature of innovation - what's next? - means that tapping the full power of an organization is important. That doesn't mean that everyone is constantly ideating. Things do need to be done. But as Stefan Lindegaard writes in his post Should everyone work with innovation?

On the other hand, every employee should be given the opportunity to work with innovation even at a certain radical level through a variety of initiatives setup by your innovation leaders. This could be idea generating campaigns, internal business plan competitions and innovation camps.

That strikes me as the right answer. No limits on employees' opportunities to contribute ideas.


"It's not information overload. It's filter failure." Clay Shirky, Web 2.0 Expo.

The issue of how to handle an avalanche of contributions - ideas, requests, information - has emerged as an acute issue with the proliferation of online media. You'll find people discussing issues of noise vs. signal, "email bankruptcy" and the need to pare down their social networks.

Clay Shirky gets it right in his philosophical positioning. The capacity of every individual to generate contributions is significant. That's not going away, and as we've seen with the use of Twitter in the Iranian election protests, it shouldn't.

Rather, the focus needs to be in refining the ways people manage information. Instinctively, you know when a piece of information is valuable. Have you stopped to consider why it was valuable? What were the contextual variables that made it so?

The application of filters is an ongoing effort by the industry, made more pertinent by the "roll-your-own" approach of many social media sites. But think about this: Google has been employing filters for a decade. The Google PageRank is an important filter for displaying search results. PageRank is a form of authority, based on a website's inbound links.

Here in 2009, an array of tools are available for filtering contributions. A key tool is leveraging what a community finds valuable. Distributing the work of defining value to thousands of different people is proving to be a powerful way to identify signal. Take for example, the My Starbucks Idea site, there are currently 9,500 ideas there. Sure, it's a lot. But the community has done a tremendous job of filtering those ideas. You can see that when you compare the top 20 to the bottom 20.

What are some other filters? For idea management, here are just a few:
  • Minimum community approval level

  • Tags and key words

  • Latest ideas

  • Ideas within specific categories

  • Ideas with minimum number of votes

  • Ideas with minimum number of views

  • Ideas with minimum number of comments

  • Ideas in a specified stage of evaluation

You get the gist of this. Social software is evolving to provide better and better ways to filter through contributions.

One other issue with following a hard-coded view of what's signal and what's noise: Your noise might be my signal. It depends on what you're working on. As the graphic below shows, it's really about stuff you're seeking. And even the stuff you're not seeking can be classified as discovery, fuel for innovation.

This is the value of a rich quantity of ideas. Signal and discovery can come from anywhere.


If you treat everyone like sheep, you'll end up with employees who are sheep.

My view here is informed by working in several different companies, both large and small. I've been exposed to cultures where employees are assumed and expected to contribute fully and meaningfully, and to cultures where the attitude is "when I want your opinion, I'll give it to you."

Changing the latter mindset is what Enterprise 2.0 is about. It taps a rich vein of contributions that have value in their own right. It also creates a work environment that most employee surveys show is highly desired and sought after.

Talk of there being an "appropriate" amount of ideas, and that most employee contributions constitute "noise" is antithetical to the direction companies are heading. For example, AT&T published a white paper several months ago, The Business Aspects of Social Networking. The paper looks at the opportunities that the rise of social networks is bringing, both externally with customers and internally with employees. Included in that paper is this table:

AT&T has 300,000 employees and a long history in the United States. The fact that they're talking this way is a good indicator that the market is moving towards a more collaborative, participatory environment, away from the same old controls that have marked work for centuries.

If employees are expected to self-censor their noisy ideas, that will have a chilling effect on participation. After all, you might risk embarrassing yourself, and incurring the wrath of people who monitor for noise. Why bother?

Bring the Noise

Innovation is built on the contributions of many people, and many experiences. This is something stressed in both Scott Berkun's "Myths of Innovation" and William Duggan's Strategic Intuition. Incorporating these three elements of Enterprise 2.0 - emergence, filters, culture - are powerful drivers of innovation for companies.

So let a thousand ideas bloom!

Image credits: Dion Hinchcliffe, gerriet

Hutch Carpenter is the Director of Marketing at Spigit. Spigit integrates social collaboration tools into a SaaS enterprise idea management platform used by global Fortune 2000 firms to drive innovation.

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Blogger Imaginatik said...

There is an appropriate volume of ideas from an appropriate number of people. Wow. Really. Pragmatist to Idealist talking.

1) Even if you sell to the masses – you do not need to listen to everyone

The best analog in market research is consumer surveys. If Proctor & Gamble want to try out ideas for a new shampoo, they do not ask 300 million people what they think. They do not even open an invitation for 300 million people to submit their thoughts. Why? There is no need (you get the results with much lower volume), and the mass of volume itself creates many unwelcome side-effects.

2) Ideas are ONLY good in context for an enterprise

Secondly, censoring ideas makes perfect sense in a world where there are companies, hierarchies, limited resources, structures, and regulations. This is, just in case idealists missed something, the real world. Ideas are good in relation to the context they are generated in. And this means that ideas that fall outside of a company’s remit, or a person’s budget, or falls on the wrong person will be necessarily ‘bad’. That does not mean they are terrible ideas… just that from an innovation perspective, they will not be moved forward.

Not only that, if you raise people’s expectations that something good might happen, they get very disappointed when things do not work out that way. Expectations in this fancy world of Enterprise 2.0 need to be very carefully managed – in an Enterprise world.

3) Filters are a tiny part of the answer – from an Innovation Perspective

Of course any system will have filters (any good system, anyway). The way this post is written, you begin to see the need for a filter of filters. As the number of skews of data presentation grow, you cannot see the forest for the forest, let alone the trees from the forest.

And using the Mystarbucks example is a good demonstration of the difference between Idea Management Idealists and Idea Management Pragmatists. So what if the crowd has picked out the ‘best 20’, if at the same tie these ideas were immediately exposed to all Starbucks competitors, thus killing off any chance of valuable Intellectual Property being created. This is an example of a system designed for Marketing purposes – not for Innovation.

4) The Merging of Enterprise 2.0 Culture into Today’s Organizations

I am a huge proponent of emergence as a concept. We live in a world defined more by complex systems, and patterns do emerge with remarkable regularity. Some of these patterns emerge based on the design of the underlying system (e.g. a company pays you to do stuff that helps the company – so don’t steal the laptops), and sometimes by giving people the freedom to come up with what they think is right.

The trouble the Idealists have in the real world is that there are these system rules that are there for good reasons, and these reasons do not magically go away just because today’s Tech T-Shirts contain the slogan ‘Enterprise 2.0’. Most corporate activities cannot survive with this idealistic, anything goes, drive without brakes approach. Perhaps in ten years time there will be new organizational designs that do cope better. Already companies operate very differently today in our world of e-mail, the web, and instant Blackberry messages. So in all likelihood things will be very different in ten years time, and the direction is being set today.

At the same time, and this was my rationale for my original posts around the Top 10 Myths of Idea Management (http://markturrell.wordpress.com/2009/05/28/top-10-myths-about-idea-management-why-they-are-wrong/) , we live in the real world. At least my firm, Imaginatik (www.imaginatik.com) and our clients do – and so we need real world approaches today, and not cool-sounding idealism. Real world solutions save and make multiple $ms today and have been doing so since 2002. Let’s see how the idealists do over the coming 12 months.

Mark Turrell
CEO, Imaginatik plc

8:48 AM  
Blogger Chris Townsend said...

I think it's a shame that these two sets of ideas are seen as antithetical. There is no need for it to be this way.

I very much respect Mark and his opinions. And, in the way that he means it, he is right in the point he's making. If you are a manager who needs to innovate on certain topics or certain products, then YES, of course you can't have an endless Tower-of-Babel of ideas. If so, you never get around to actually doing anything.

This is a very different point from Hutch's (Hutch also being someone who, the more I get to know, the more I respect thoroughly). I take Hutch's point as being that *separate* from the discussion of specific groups or projects, it is good to have an ongoing background hum from the masses. This gives a continuous "molten core" of idea churn and discovery from which managers can cherry-pick as necessary to feed their ideation/innovation pipelines.

The trick, then, is to be able to both 1) separate and 2) harmonize these complementary operations. On the one hand, there needs to be a corporate-level innovation management program to stoke the fires and allow those 1,000 flowers to bloom. On the other hand, there *also* need to be discrete and constrained local processes within teams/groups for interfacing with the central cauldron -- both 1) in socializing each team's specific innovation priorities with the corporate cauldron and, 2) subsequently, in each team's ability sorting through the magma to find the ideas that match their business/project/product innovation needs.

I strongly suggest that everyone take a step back from their entrenched positions and realize that in this case, you are BOTH right. I realize that you are from competing vendors in the "innovation management" marketplace (as am I as well), but let's make sure you're comparing apples-to-apples. If we compete solely on evangelistic "vision," then we force everyone to choose between competing visions -- each of which, frankly, is incomplete when it comes to the totality of "innovation management." Each of our companies -- I-Nova included -- is working on one or another piece of the full value prop. But no one company can possibly have the whole thing nailed on its own. "Innovation" is FAR too big a tapestry for one company to take it all.

As I was fond of saying when I was at Forrester, right now we still need to "grow the pie" just as much as "divide the pie." The time for divisions will come, for sure. But it is still VERY early to be jumping to this stage. This is harmful to everyone (both vendors and users), because it limits the full possibility of what the "innovation management" value proposition turns out to be. If you start a turf war now, it is likely to affect I-Nova negatively as well, because it will cloud and distort the market's perspective of what's really possible and what they have to gain from our types of solutions. So please, STOP THIS. It's not becoming of you.

12:28 AM  
Blogger bhc3 said...

Thanks Mark for responding with a good-spirited reply. We don't have to agree on everything. Nothing wrong with a little debate.

And Chris, thanks for weighing in too. I too respect you immensely. I'm still reading your Forrester reports. Can't stifle a good discussion though. My sense is the market has room for multiple points of view, we're just exploring them here. I'd hope we don't end the discussion on this. It's a good one.

The Idealistic Pragmatist

4:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Townsend said...

Hutch --

Well said. In fact, like you, I very much hope that the discussion continues -- actually, that it grows and deepens over time. Please understand my impassioned remarks were (intended to be) directed at the *tenor* of the discussion, not the discussion itself.

Sometimes it's hard for me (and everyone else) to resist using forceful words to make a clear point -- especially when it's an online discussion and I cannot use facial gestures, tone of voice, etc. as markers.

Here's hoping we can all maintain a sense of collegiality and sense-of-purpose -- to complement and nourish the existing atmosphere of sporting competition through open discussion. It's a difficult balance to strike, but so far so good.


3:46 AM  
Anonymous Vincent Carbone said...

Hi All,

Ok.. I will try to lighten things up!

I love when consultants battle it out on their theories!

Wish I could participate, but over here at Brightidea.com, we are software people developing the most advanced and flexible software in the industry. Our system can actually test / handle both of these theories, and the dozen other ones that other consultanting companies in the industry are proposing. Given the newest of Idea/Innovation management within organization, I would place a bet that both of these theories have a long way to go before they are validated..

So, if the guys at Spigit and Imaginatik want to test their theories, give us a call and we will provide the software ;)

Vincent Carbone
Brightidea Inc.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Chris Townsend said...

Not sure anyone here qualifies as a "consultant." We all work for software companies. As you know full well Vince.

1:29 PM  

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