Thursday, March 25, 2010

Building on Ideas: The Wishing Well Wiki

duplo Note: This post was written with my friend and colleague Rob Veltman (@robveltman). We carpool together and regularly talk about innovation and culture. Rob is an innovative product developer always challenging himself and his colleagues to ask the right questions to solve problems and make wishes come true. Rob is deeply interested in new product development, processes for (breakthrough) innovation and sustainability.

Introduction
How could we contribute to a more innovative organization? We ask ourselves this question regularly, help each other to come up with new ideas in this area and try to lead by example.
We would like to share with you an aspect of our daily practice, which is the observation that our colleagues can experience hesitance in being innovative. We will propose a solution to overcome this hesitance.

Situation
Knowledge companies consist of very smart people, educated in different disciplines. Their knowledge workers are confronted with all kinds of interesting issues, problems and challenges. Sometimes the assignments even seem impossible.
Generally speaking, we find most ideas for solutions and breakthrough innovations are done individually (mono-disciplinary). Furthermore we perceive that quite a number of employees are hesitant to share their drafty ideas, needs, desires, and wishes. We are convinced this can be attributed to at least three things:

  • employees can feel reluctance “to put their cards on the table” because they feel their half, draft, non-100%, “unfinished” idea will be heavily scrutinized. Too often we hear: “This has already been investigated”, “This can’t be done”, “This is not your task, it’s mine”, “Unrealistic”, etc.
  • employees can also experience reluctance because they feel their unfinished idea will be “stolen” and completed without getting credits for providing the seed of the innovation
  • employees often speak of ‘problems’ and ‘issues’ in a way that is too restricting, almost assuming beforehand that an optimal solution will never be found. The presupposition: “a perfect solution doesn’t exist” tends to block the creative process before it has even started.

For these reasons employees tend to keep their ideas, ideals, wishes and problems to themselves. At the most, they discuss their ideas with people from their inner circle, people they trust.

Changing terms
Wouldn’t it be great if we could overcome this reluctance? We believe this is possible by helping colleagues to be more open and transparent about their (and our) profound wishes. All smart employees can formulate what they would wish for with respect to products. If this is facilitated, supported and encouraged, we believe organizations will change in the following ways:

  • they will become more innovative and innovate in a more open, controlled and quick way,
  • no challenge will be too big; they will truly do, and be part of, ‘beyond the ordinary’ things,
  • they will build upon each other’s ideas and wishes

Proposal
We are convinced technology alone cannot be the solution. However, we do think technology can support us and help us open up and move towards the evermore-innovative organization described above.
We would like to propose the following:

  • Set up a wiki called ‘Wishing-Well-Wiki’.
  • This wiki is clearly supported by high-level management.
  • It is fostered by a group of moderators, connecting wishes to people, and people to people, to make wishes reality.
  • This wiki is open for all employees (from all disciplines and all levels). Everyone is invited and encouraged to make a contribution.
  • This wiki has a clear format. All employees can describe their (product-related) wishes there. Typically these wishes are far-fetched, way-out. They are hard to realize alone, they need input from other smart people to evolve into an implementation.
  • The wiki supports sudden and emerging breakthroughs.
  • The wiki has built-in history. So, every input is recorded (versioned).
  • When wishes become reality the contributors get support from management (in time, money and resources) to realize their joint dream. (Of course, employees may be requested for a business case.) The results of the wishing well wiki can also be used as input for the strategy.
  • Regularly advertise wishes via intranet (e.g. ‘Wish of the Week’) and other channels to attract attention to them and stress their importance.

There are no costs in setting up this wiki.

What has to be clear is that:

  • Few ideas can be qualified as bad. In most cases a proposed embodiment, to realize the idea, can be bad/impractical/insufficient, but an idea/concept in itself is without form and mass and thus cannot be judged by arguments that relate to physical characteristics.
  • If someone qualifies an idea as “bad” or “not viable”, this person actually disqualifies his own proposal for an embodiment that first came up when he/she heard of the new idea.
  • We all know that “first time right” is an utopia, especially with something like innovation. It is generally accepted that the innovating process is a painstaking process that requires the input from many different sources.
  • In our view the real innovation process focuses on the process in which an embodiment is reshaped and transformed up until the moment that it is generally accepted that the end result is achieved or at least nearly met. Innovation, in our view, should not be aimed at the optimization of an idea itself.

These concepts fit perfectly on the concept of a wiki.

Concluding
This idea, which is also called ‘inbound open innovation’, can easily be extended to the whole organization. Other employees in the organization can also have (product-related) wishes. Sharing them and building upon them, leading to innovations could be done on a global scale too. (Refer to Dell’s Ideastorm, Innocentive and IBM’s Innovation Jam for inspiring examples.) A more sophisticated platform than the wiki could be needed to manage this global process.

References
[1] Phil McKinney, “The Fear of Innovation”.
[2] Ed Catmull, “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity”, in: HBR, Sept. 2008.
[3] Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire, “Creativity and the Role of the Leader”, in: HBR, Oct. 2008.
[4] Osvald Bjelland and Robert Wood, “An Inside View of IBM’s ‘Innovation Jam’”, in: MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2008.
[5] Allan Scherr, “Managing for Breakthroughs in Productivity”, Jan. 2005.
[6] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity. Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention.
[7] G.S. Altshuller, Triz.
[8] James Cash et al., “Enterprise Integration. Teaming Up to Crack Innovation”, in: HBR, Nov. 2008.
[9] Jim Collins, Good to Great. Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, New York 2001.
[10] Meeting More Minds

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