Saturday, March 29, 2008

Last night I attended the University of Chicago GSB Consulting Roundtable for a very informative presentation on Web 2.0. One of the applications we talked about was using the social network structure to do ideation. The process starts with a straw man idea. This initial idea is sent to two people who add to, or modify the idea -- change it to create a somewhat new idea. Each of these people sends their idea to two additional people who modify it, send it to two other people, and so on. Each participant gets to rate and rank the ideas, and ultimately there’s an idea(s) selection process.

It will be interesting to watch how this ideation process pans-out. It is a popular belief in innovation circles that to get a really good idea, you need lots of ideas. This is the old Edisonian approach to innovation. There is nothing wrong with generating lots of ideas. If you’ve got to solve a problem, and you don’t have a better method, then lots of ideas is a pretty good approach. You’re likely to generate a reasonably workable idea.

I think there is at least one great benefit to this way of ideation. In any business there is a chance that a strong synthesizer is close to the problem. It’s highly probable that this synthesizer has already thought through the problem and has a good solution. In many businesses, there is no good way for this kind of person to surface an idea. This type of ideation process may allow the idea to be surfaced as a ‘modification’ of the straw man. It still may go nowhere because often the change that’s needed cuts pretty deep into what’s in place.

People are naturally cautious about big changes. Part of that is because big change usually carries a degree of risk. But it is also true that our brains form increasingly rigid ‘success’ patterns around processes that have repeatedly worked well in the past. These hard wired patterns blind us when we examine a new idea. It is why in hindsight a hard fought for solution looks obvious when the dust settles. Oddly enough, the best ideas are almost always initially rejected with statements like: “the idea is completely unworkable”; “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about”; or “we already tried something like that and it was a total failure”. People’s brains reject change to a process or product that has long been successful. The real obstacle to this Grapevine ideation process is the notion of rating-and-ranking ideas. It is a popularity contest. The best idea will likely be pretty unpopular initially. What is needed is problem-solution evaluation criteria.

Lots if important innovations did not come from some group-think (after all, each act of synthesis happens in just one brain). The literature is full of examples of important innovations that were rejected repeatedly as dumb ideas. It is just how our minds work. Thomas Watson of IBM initially rejected the computer, 3M repeatedly rejected masking tape, Xerox rejected the personal laser printer (which HP then made into a very profitable business), and HP also rejected the display monitor, etc. It was the persistence of the originator that eventually turned the idea into a delivered solution.
One area where it would be interesting to test the usefulness of the Grapevine approach, would be in the initial problem-definition stage. That is, use the tool to define the problem precisely, with the rate and rank process identifying the fundamental properties of the problem, then the solution can be evaluated in terms of how well it purports to address each of these properties.
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