Friday, November 04, 2005

Atomic model of innovation

I think we've got the model all wrong in some respects about innovation. It seems to me that the idea is to generate dust clouds of ideas and thrust some smart people into the cloud, and by osmosis or sheer insight they'll pick the ones that make the most sense. In this model, lots of ideas are generated - good and bad - and a few people are "in charge" of figuring everything else out.

This approach forgives the lack of process - in fact it really doesn't need any process - but it certainly relies on having a few very insightful people who can glean the great ideas from the mass of irrelevant and meaningless ideas. Sort of like seeking needles in needle haystacks. What happens in this model is that the people in charge of selecting the ideas often just generate their own, since it's too hard to identify good ideas among so many generated. The idea submitters see their ideas go into a virtual cul-de-sac, and become discouraged and fail to continue to contribute ideas.

My recommendation would be to reverse the model - still using a rather atomic model of innovation - but in my model the people and process become the "electrons" spinning around a nucleas of ideas and systems to support the ideas. I'm arguing, in fact, that MORE people working on FEWER ideas is probably a better bet. Why?

Well, it's not as though the old model is really working that well, but that's not a great rationalization. There are probably three reasons why I think my model is better.

1. More people working on ideas and interacting with each other will naturally spark combinations and new ideas that weren't thought of before. In some cases, more heads do make better decisions and can create better frameworks.

2. Ideas need a home. Trying to push a few smart guys and gals through a dustcloud of ideas hoping one will differentiate itself is just not a great strategy. Too many "ideas" are sitting in Excel spreadsheets, shared folders, Word documents and other containers, which don't provide visibility, ranking and importance factors. One central location - the nucleas - is needed for ideas.

3. In any atomic nucleas, there are the protons, which hold the nucleas together. In my model, this would consist of the systems, processes and cultural factors which bind the ideas and the people working on the ideas together. Like it or not, an orderly process is more powerful than disorder. Nature reminds us of this constantly. We humans need order - we are not good at managing things that don't have some order associated or imposed.

Let's put things right as we innovate. Put the ideas, processes and the systems that support them in the center, as the nucleas of our model, and encourage more people to participate.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:00 AM

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