Tapping the power of 250,000 PhDs, and other paths to innovation

Experiment, experiment and experiment more -- and other advice shared at this year's World Innovation Forum.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer on

Don't be afraid to constantly be experimenting, and don't be afraid to fail at most of those experiments.

Scott Cook: Keep on experimenting.

That's the message from Scott Cook, co-founder and chairman of Intuit Inc., part of a series of high-powered speakers at this year's World Innovation Forum, held in New York. To achieve game-changing innovation, Cook says, be willing to constantly run small-scale experiments, to develop a "culture of fast cycle experiments."

In the case of Intuit's TurboTax, the company encourages up to 140 experiments each tax season, with new Websites and new services. Intuit learned to process these experiments in rapid order, he says. "They would install them on Thursday, run them over the weekend, and read and analyze them on Monday," he says.

While 89% of experiments fail, it's important to let them play out, Cook adds. And conduct them frequently. "The sooner we run a small experiment, the quicker you'll learn what's a failure, the sooner you’ll learn the surprises," he advises. "The common perception is that you only want to experiment with something that's already been perfected." Instead, he recommends, "break down idea into key components. Then test components very rapidly."

Along with business experiments, innovation also increasingly comes from outside the walls of the enterprise. Mohanbir Sawhney, professor with Northwestern University's the Kellogg School of Management, urged business leaders to look well beyond the walls of their enterprises for innovation."Your smartest people are working outside your company -- they’ve got better things to do," he quipped.

Sawhney referred to this new breed of innovation as "connected innovation," meaning that networks deliver innovation. This occurs on three levels, starting with "customer co-creation," in which customers provide their input. Another level of innovation, he says, is "innovation ecosystems," in which customers are but one of many nodes used as resources, along with networks of partners, inventors, educational institutions, and laboratories. An example of this is IBM's "Innovation Jams," started in 2006, which now regularly bring together up to 100,000 participants to work out problems or act on opportunities.

Mohanbir Sawhney: Move problem-solving outside your domain.

Finally, there's the ultimate form of connected innovation, "innovation marketplaces," in which innovation is sought from the entire world. "Its not enough to build your innovation ecosystem around your company, because there’s only so many people you know," Sawhney points out. "With innovation ecosystems – your reach is limited, and companies' fields of view are usually limited.  They need to take assistance and help from third parties or intermediaries. They make connections between companies and innovators, and harness their potential."

One innovation market maker, Innocentive, boasts up to 250,000 scientists from 200 companies who are ready to step in and help solve problems. "Can you imagine having a pool of 250,000 PhDs at your disposal to solve a problem?" he asks. "The problems being posted at Innocentive are problems that have been given up on." The success rate for opening up these problems to the network is 50%, he continues.

Many of the participating scientists are either retired or in emerging markets, he says, adding that these participants approach problems from various domains -- "it's not a physics problem or a chemistry problem or an engineering problem" For example, some scientists at AT&T Labs recently were awarded for helping NetFlix improve its recommendation algorithm. Without an innovation market such as Innocentive, "Netflix would not have had access to bell labs scientists otherwise," Sawhney points out.

The bottom line is many tough problems are being solved because they are being opened up to the world. "Some really interesting non-obvious connections that are made because you are taking problems outside your domain," Sawhney says.

(Photos courtesy of WOBI, World of Business Ideas.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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