Innovation Through Co-Creation: It’s What’s On the "Inside" That Counts

12 May 2008|Tim Hyer

Let’s review some simple math:

0 + 0 = 0, correct.
0 + 1 = 1, correct.
1 + 1 = 2, wrong!

Well, at least when it comes to ideas.

We’ve all heard the phrase, two heads are better than one. When applied to idea generation, this phrase takes on a whole new meaning. The principle of collective intelligence suggests that multiple minds thinking about the same problem will yield an exponential output compared to that of a single mind. As Marty Neumeier suggests in his book, The Brand Gap, the equation 1 + 1 = 11 is most accurate for illustrating the generative power of teamwork.

But when it comes to true collaboration, sheer numbers aren’t always enough. While collaboration certainly requires more than one person, there’s another mandatory ingredient that’s often forgotten. For collaboration to be a means of achieving innovation, diversity is key. You can collaborate all day and night and get absolutely nowhere if your fellow collaborators share the exact same background, perspectives, and opinions. Looking at the same problem from multiple angles can dimensionalize the breadth and depth of possible solutions. For example, you can take a single dentist’s ideas for inventing a new kind of dental floss, compare to the thoughts of 100 other like-minded dentists, and end up with the exact same conclusions. On the other hand, if you connect any one of those dentists with a fashion expert, a librarian, a professional athlete – You’ll end up with a number of unique and multifaceted dental floss solutions that a room full of dentists could have never come up with on their own! This is the philosophy behind co-creation which is built on the belief that two or more unique creators working together produces something none of the creators could or would have achieved working alone. The value of diverse backgrounds and fresh perspectives is just as important as the number of thinkers involved. It’s said that variety is the spice of life, but from a collaborative standpoint, variety is also the spice of innovation.

Although it has taken awhile for the business world to deviate from its traditional models where R&D happens exclusively behind the closed doors of science and engineering labs, collaborative companies are learning that the cross-pollination that occurs between individuals, teams, departments, and companies is proving to be a successful driver of innovation. Not to mention, the emphasized focus on the end-user in new product development. You may have noticed the rise in popularity of cross-functional teams, corporate exchange programs, and user-focused job titles in your own organization. In order to innovate and survive in today’s competitive marketplace, more and more companies are catching the collaboration wave by thinking differently and tapping into new sources of ideas – both internally and externally.

From my work experience thus far, I have a pretty good handle on how both internal and external sources can be conduits for innovation. Early in my career, I co-led a program to develop a culture of collaboration by tapping into the internal expertise of a large technology company. Now, I find myself at an innovation consulting firm that prides itself on 60 years of bringing external expertise into the innovation process through rich consumer insights. Between the two, there certainly isn’t a better approach, as both methods inspire optimal collaboration and serve as the foundation for strategic innovation. Ideally, a company will be able to take advantage of both.

Every Thursday, Cheskin hosts a speaker to discuss the latest and greatest trends in the world of innovation. A couple weeks back, we welcomed Rick Bess, Idea Mentor at Adobe. Intriguing job title, huh? Rick has spoken at several conferences and has been featured in business publications for his unique approach to fostering a culture of innovation. In his role as mentor, Rick listens to hundreds of ideas per year from Adobe employees around the globe. As part of the Idea refinement phase, he connects different field experts from within the company to create cross-functional business teams to guide an idea from conception to execution.

Like many other corporations are discovering, some of Adobe’s most successful innovations have come from within. And it makes sense. Who could be better at suggesting new product and service ideas than the people who live and breathe the stuff everyday? Thus, companies are looking internally and are finding ways to tap the seasoned intelligence of its employees.

One of Rick’s most noteworthy initiatives, which Fast Company has dubbed Adobe Idol, is a quarterly Idea Champions Showcase where the Idea Champions from around the company debut their ideas to a panel of Entrepreneurs in Residence to provide feedback and guidance for the investigation phase of idea refinement. After giving each Idea Champion 10 minutes of uninterrupted “singing” time, dialogue ensues with a Q&A. After evaluating each idea concept on a variety of criteria, the panel decides which ideas will receive direct support from Corporate Development in the Investigation stage. The objective of the Investigation stage is to resolve open topics that are required to make an informed funding decision as a Seed Product project. Most topics fall into one of 3 categories including Business, Technical Feasibility, and Design/Customer workflow.

The system is collaboration at its finest and isn’t any more complex than it needs to be. Although I don’t have an exact statistic, Rick spoke of several success stories that have graduated this program to become strong and profitable products in the Adobe portfolio. There’s a famous quote by Colin Powell that says, “The people on the front lines are right, until proven otherwise.” The same principle applies here.

Leveraging in-house talent is just one potential source of extreme innovation. It’s a proven model that’s been successful at Adobe and other progressive corporations. My next blog entry will cover another potential source of creativity and insight – Outside experts.

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