Innovation Begs For A Crock-Pot, Not Blender

Everyone's trying to create environments for rapid innovation, but some ideas need to simmer for a while.
In a recent post, Social 'Ideation' Does Not Equal Innovation, InformationWeek's David Carr wrote about the importance of focus and strategy when using social ideation tools. It is certainly true that there is no magic technology bullet when it comes to making an organization more innovative, but it is also clear by the recent proliferation of collaborative ideation software that vendors (and presumably their customers) see a real benefit in enabling organizations to rapidly share ideas.

Here's the thing though -- most of these tools and strategies focus on the here and now. Idea jams are time-boxed. Ideas are voted up or down and prioritized. In my own company, people are thrown together for "entrepreneurial challenges" and "hackathons." And there's nothing wrong with this approach. It shakes things up, mixes people together who might not otherwise interact with each other, and generates ideas at a rapid pace.

But radically disruptive ideas often just take time, because they are either hard to grasp or not yet ready for prime time. Douglas Engelbart developed the computer mouse and hypertext in the 1960s, Vannevar Bush started thinking about the Internet in the 1940s, and Leonardo da Vinci came up with innovative ideas hundreds of years before they could be implemented. It would not have mattered how effortlessly da Vinci could have collaborated with the best minds of his day; the underlying technologies were simply not yet there to carry out his visionary ideas. Even today, for all the adulation heaped on the iPhone, it wouldn't be worth much without being able to leverage pre-existing Internet, cellular, Wi-Fi and GPS platforms.

[ Control yourself: Innovation Is Executive Porn. ]

Sometimes what is needed is not a blender but a Crock-Pot, a slow cooker that can allow ideas to simmer until they are fully cooked. Blenders and slow cookers both can mix together different flavors to (hopefully) come up with something tasty, but they do it at different speeds. We can get so enamored with cool new "ideation" capabilities that we don't notice how simply taking advantage of basic social software capabilities can make our organizations more innovative over the long haul.

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson provides seven elements that form the basis for an innovative ecosystem: the "adjacent possible," liquid networks, the slow hunch, serendipity, error, exaptation (using something in a way it was not intended), and platforms. It's easy to see how social tools can provide an organization with platforms and liquid networks, but I want to focus on three others in the context of this discussion: the slow hunch, serendipity and the adjacent possible.

In discussing the idea of the slow hunch, Johnson says: "Most slow hunches never last long enough to turn into something useful, because they pass in and out of our memory too quickly, precisely because they possess a certain murkiness. You get a feeling that there's an interesting avenue to explore, a problem that might someday lead you to a solution, but then you get distracted by more pressing matters and the hunch disappears. So part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down."

So let's take "write everything down" one step further beyond just keeping a journal. In my previous InformationWeek post, I discussed working out loud, the idea of narrating your work within your company's social platform. Imagine if you did that routinely. Imagine if you got everyone else in your company to do that routinely.

Now imagine your company five or 10 years from now. Imagine how much better your social software's recommendation engine will be by then. This is where serendipity and the adjacent possible come into play. Someone (maybe even you) might serendipitously discover your musings from today and realize how much more feasible they are than they were when you first wrote them, as the future progresses and the possible becomes increasingly adjacent. But none of that will happen if today's ideas aren't there to be discovered.

So by all means employ jam sessions and ideation tools to get as much innovation out of your organization as quickly as possible. But simply by writing "out loud" your thoughts and activities in blog posts and discussion threads, you and your coworkers could be laying the groundwork for your future company to be more innovative than you could ever imagine.