Innovation, especially collaborative innovation, or co-creation, requires the judicious use of collaborators. While it is instructive to recognize and applaud modern pace setters like Apple, P&G, Unilever, Lego, and Nike, it is important to recognize that few achievements, if any, are stand-alone; they usually stand on the shoulders of titans of a previous era.
The purpose of this blog is to pay homage to one such giant, Thomas Alva Edison, to his understanding of the importance of collaboration, to the importance of picking the right collaborators, and building requisite diversity into his invention and innovation programs.
First, some stage setting.
Chapter 5 of my book, Collaboration and Co-Creation: New Platforms for Marketing and Innovation, presents and discusses a framework for implementing co-creation programs. One of the elements of the framework deals with the issue of collaborators. Specifically, who, or which customers should the company select and invite to participate in the co-creation project?
In some cases, the company may not want to impose any restrictions, and all who desire to participate are welcome. Co-creation projects that have the potential to benefit from a diverse set of ideas and skills found in every-day people generally fit this category. For example:
- Frito-Lay’s Crash the Super Bowl Contest: can benefit from the humor and video creation skills of a large number of consumers and non-consumers of the brand.
- Oxford English Dictionary: suggestions for which words to add to the dictionary to keep it current and alive, don’t just come from connoisseurs of the English language, they come from simple, every-day readers as well.
- Coca-Cola: several hundred thousand people from all over the world helped Coke make open happiness tangible, not just a few Madison Avenue, advertising agency specialists.
There are other times, however, when the nature of the co-creation task demands that the set of collaborators be drawn from a pool of specialists. For example, Nokia Beta Labs makes it intentions very clear, it wants to collaborate with lead users only. To help determine whether if you are a lead user or not the site encourages you to take a test. Similarly, since the goal of TopCoder is helping companies meet their systems, software, and design needs, its collaborators are specialists, those who have software/system development, and design skills.
Additionally, diversity of thinking among collaborators is also important. Not surprisingly, Topcoder’s community of 300,000+ software and design professionals come from a diverse set of backgrounds and mindsets, and places, ranging from Ankara to Zagreb!
While the words and labels associated with collaborators, such as early adopters, innovators, lead users, experts, technology mavens, etc., maybe of recent vintage, the concept that in several cases, it is better to be discriminatory in choosing your collaborators has been around a long time. Without that focus and specialized inputs, the targeted co-creation programs would have essentially been non-starters.
Now back to Thomas Edison – extraordinary and brilliant on several dimensions. Not only was he technically brilliant, he also had exceptional business and organizational smarts. Specifically, in terms of collaboration and co-creation:
- He realized that in order to implement the many ranging ideas, to “give the world what it needed,” he had to have collaborators; going solo was not an option.
- Most importantly, he was acutely aware that any odd collaborator would not do – they had to approximately mirror his skills and passions. In order to achieve that goal he devised a ultra-unique 150-question test, to recruit his collaborators, no exception. If you would like to transport yourself back to 1921 to figure out if you would have made Edison’s team, visit the Edison museum site. The test is challenging and humbling, so be forewarned!
- Interestingly, most of the questions were from areas other than science. Presumably, there was greater faith in the ability of renaissance individuals to do better, no matter what the field of endeavor, than myopic moles. Exactly the opposite of what one observes today.
- He also understood the value of diversity, which is why he recruited collaborators from a wide variety of ethnic, cultural, and national backgrounds – a deliberate strategy to invest in wide-ranging perspectives and points-of-view, thereby preventing what we call “groupthink” today.
The brilliance of Edison continues to illuminate, guide, and teach. The reasons why we need to pay homage to Edison are many. In the context of collaboration and co-creation, the brief list presented above will suffice.
It’s not the size of the list that matters though – it’s the strength of its message. In today’s age, often characterized more by spin than substance, the value of Edison’s focus on fundamentals in building enduring customer value through innovation is priceless!