Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Applying a social media rule to innovation

I've suggested before that there are parallels between social media and innovation.  In fact much "open innovation" is simply a subset of social media.  In many open innovation programs a group of people submit ideas and rank and comment on the ideas within the community.  The organizing feature of the community is often the topic of innovation, rather than other shared beliefs or interests.

Today in a meeting I postulated (just wanted to use that word) a new social media rule.  I suggested that there are really two interesting types of social media communities - broad and topical (think Twitter) or deep and narrow (think forums or some blogs).  Yes, I recognize that this is a simplistic two by two matrix, but what's interesting is that most social media exists in the two "extremes".  There are probably examples of narrow and topical, but they will shortly be either broad and topical or extinct.  I couldn't come up with an example of a social media site that was both "deep" in terms of information richness and "broad" in terms of participation, but it may exist.  The real point is that most social media examples consist of two very diverse types:  a topical interaction site where there are thousands of participants examining interesting but not very informative or deep information, or smaller groups of people connected to discuss very deep or information rich sources.

What's interesting about this phenomenon is that it aligns well to the best kinds of innovation, especially idea generation but all aspects of innovation in general.  A good rule of thumb in the innovation space is that the more diverse the participation, the better, but only up to a point.  Once you tip over into a large group setting, no matter how diverse the population the ideas you receive are more likely than not to be incremental.  That's because it is exceptionally difficult to get everyone on a disruptive page, and just a few people in a large group who don't buy in or didn't get the memo will pull the group into a more incremental discussion.  Most innovation consultants will tell you that once you reach a tipping point somewhere between 8 and 10 participants you inevitably will produce more incremental ideas.  Thus, you have an innovation corollary to broad and topic social media and incremental innovation.  The greater the number of people involved in the dialog, the more likely the conversation is to turn to topical or incremental issues.

Conversely, where innovation is concerned, the more "radical" or disruptive the desired outcome is the more emphasis you place on diversity and restricting team size.  As discussed above, it is much easier to get 5, 6 or 7 people on board to radical thinking - and to do really interesting radical innovation you need everyone on board and on the same page.  The number of participants and the ability to define the problem effectively are the limiting factors in this case.  So, again another corollary to social media.  A smaller community is much more likely to create and discuss deeper concepts and deal with information rich environments as long as the scope is well defined. 

What does this say for your innovation work?  Using "Open Innovation" or "closed innovation", you can achieve incremental ideas with a broad set of people or a small set of people, but will rarely get really interesting radical ideas.  However, for really interesting radical ideas you usually need a smaller set of diverse people who have been prepared with the proper scope and who are "bought in" to the disruptive task.  The participants may be inside your organization or outside or both, but the numbers should be limited and the team well prepared.

Our work history demonstrates that as the number of participants increase, they expect others in the team to do the reading, to submit ideas and to debate.  In a larger group there is less commitment and less engagement and often the opportunity to "lurk" increases.  In a smaller group where everyone is accountable and all input is recognized, there's no room to slough off the work, and individuals can more easily be held accountable to the scope and nature of the work.  In a larger group it is also difficult to discuss radical ideas if the entire team is not prepared or "on board", so most radical ideas get shot down early and those who wish to generate radical ideas are marginalized.

With this background it's easy to see that most "open" innovation programs are great for incremental innovation, mirroring the broad and topical social media, but aren't typically well suited for radical idea generation.  "Open" innovation can provide "radical" answers when the participants are carefully selected, well prepared and highly engaged, and that usually means that a very thorough scope or problem statement has been created, which is the Innocentive model.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:34 PM


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