Whether you like it or not, competition today is fierce. And it’s only going to get fiercer. Where the old battleground was price and efficiency, the new one will be innovation and time to market. The tech startup world has Eric Ries’s Lean Startup movement, which teaches us how to be fast (and iteratively build a product which consumers love, the fabled "market fit"). But it doesn’t tell us a lot about innovation.
Innovation has been studied for as long as economists have tried to make sense of the modern organization. The quintessential question centers around the weird black box with the ominous label "creativity." Today everybody seems to try to emulate the genius of Steve Jobs, not realizing that he’s the outlier. But there is a different way, a way that has brought us many breakthrough inventions in fields as far reaching as technology, sports, and medicine. That way is open innovation.
Being open fundamentally changes the game. Combine two insights, one from Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems, who stated in 1990 that, "No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else," with an observation from Karim Lakhani, professor at Harvard Business School some 15 years later that, "Most innovation efforts suffer from lack of initial variety and number of approaches." When you bring these insights together it immediately becomes clear that you have to do things differently: You have to create alongside your customers, because you can’t rely on a robust outcome of your in-house innovation process.
One of the most obvious examples of open innovation is Mozilla and the Firefox web browser, now used by a quarter of the world’s online population and responsible for dragging the Web out of the innovation gap in the late 2000s. But also consider other feats of open innovation: snowboards, mountain bikes, surgical instruments, and many other technological inventions and breakthroughs which are right at the center of our lives today.
The fundamental idea is simple: Instead of following the "lone inventor in a garage" model, which more often than not doesn’t work because the result is highly accidental, you invite your community into the innovation process. You listen, observe, engage, discuss, and ultimately create together. This helps you overcome the two fundamental challenges. You suddenly have a deep talent pool and you get significantly more initial approaches.
This all sounds good. But being open is also a fundamental shift in the way you do business. One that is scary (at best) for the established player and daunting for the incumbent. The following five tips will hopefully make it easier to embrace the wisdom of your consumers in creating a better product.
If your aim is not to create something that is vastly superior, nobody will care. This is true enough for your employees, but it certainly is true for a community. Nobody wants to spend time and energy on something that is incrementally better at best. When Mozilla created Firefox it revolutionized the way we browse the Web—many of these inventions are now common and standard across all browsers (tabs, the search box, pop-up blockers, and many more). People don’t care about me-too products. They deeply care about people and things that change the world.
You have to learn to let go. Allow your community to make decisions on their own. This is not the place for micro-management. This is the space where you create a meritocracy and push most of your decision making out to the edges.
Your communication needs to be inclusive. You can’t expect your community to do anything if they don’t have the full picture. This means that all your communication must be open by default: Use public mailings lists, have your water cooler discussions on chat channels, and generally make sure your communication is reusable. Otherwise you create a system of insiders and outsiders, which doesn’t work.
It must be trivially easy for your community to engage with you and help. This can take many forms, from links to public forums which are sprinkled across your website to pages which clearly explain how someone can become part of your community and which tasks they can take on. Make sure you offer forms of engagement that fit people with different skills as well as different time commitments.
This is fundamental. You must understand that your community is not a market. It’s not something outside of your walls. People in your community are citizens. Treat them right, invite them in, and you will become so much stronger. You are your community. Your community is you.
I encourage you to try this out. If it sounds too scary, try it with a smaller project. Give people some (a lot) of leeway. And let them (and thus you and your company) flourish. There is no doubt in my mind that—with the exception of a few outliers that you could never count on becoming—the future belongs to those who embrace open.