9 things we've learned about creativity and innovation since 2009


This is a piece I wrote recently for Chaordix:

At Chaordix, we launched our software platform back in 2009, and we’ve had the honour of working with some of the world’s leading brands in developing co-creation and open innovation communities. Here are 9 of the many things we’ve learned in working with brands such as IBM, The LEGO Group, KPMG, Rust-Oleum, HSBC, American Airlines, FutureBrand, Virgin Money, P&G, Centrica, 100%Open, Omni Hotels, HTC, Reckitt Benckiser, and Ford:

1.     Digital suggestion boxes and basic idea contests don’t work in the long run.   The Chaordix platform emerged from one of the first business experiments in crowdsourced, gamified idea contests. While early site traffic rates and idea submission levels may have been exciting ... the downside of a torrent of unvetted ideas, raised expectations from participant “inventors,” and declining visitor enthusiasm made the model unsustainable. Over the years, we’ve been contacted by well-intentioned companies and organizations who have run their own idea contest programs and found themselves with thousands of ideas in a database, volumes of unstructured discussion data, fatigued employees or customers, and big challenges with implementation. We’ve helped them turn this around; the first step is helping them realize that ideas are only one part of a successful creativity and innovation program.

2.     Not all communities are created equal.   At Chaordix, we’re very careful when we use the word “community” because we know it’s so often misunderstood in the era of social media. And we know the important role a real sense of community plays in sustainable innovation and creativity capacity. True community isn’t a group of strangers who all like the same social page. It’s not a panel of customers who answer sporadic product questions and give feedback on marketing concepts for monetary rewards. And it’s not a group of people who just work in the same building. True community takes time to build: it takes effort to build trust, reciprocity, loyalty and a shared history; and it takes patience to build shared standards, a community economy, affinity for other community members, and a place for authentic creative exchange. But it’s worth the journey because a true community will astonish you with their willingness and ability to help your organization be successful with their collective ingenuity.

3.     To paraphrase a well-worn business adage, “Community eats insularity for breakfast.”   We’ve learned that a traditional tendency in companies to want to keep the development of a game-changing product completely in-house and secret from competitors and customers all-too-often backfires and results in a market failure. P&G’s then-CEO, A.G. Lafley famously revealed that only 15% of P&G’s new product launches were a commercial success before they embraced open innovation and developed market-leading products like Oil of Olay Regenerist and Swiffer. By opening up the innovation process to include a community of co-designers and co-developers, organizations can tap the knowledge found in unexpected employees, creative suppliers, enterprising citizens, and ingenious customers.

4.     You will find the right balance between co-creativity and open innovation.   Open innovation takes co-creativity to the “next level” by creating an open ecosystem of ideas and insights, where ideas that don’t serve your business innovation model can be released back into the ecosystem for others to bring to market. We know that most organizations are not comfortable with the notion of such a wide-open process, particularly when it comes to competitive intelligence and intellectual property development. In fact, for almost all companies, the bulk of their innovation efforts will be focused on refining current products (incremental innovation) or modifying their core offerings for new markets or uses (adaptive innovation). Only a small portion of efforts and resources are focused directly on diversifying into a new market with a new product (disruptive innovation). So we help clients focus their community programming on co-creativity activities that improve products, create novel marketing content, improve processes, and find new uses or customers for existing products. When insights for more disruptive innovation are desired, we can create private and semi-private activities that help keep the degree of openness in each brand’s comfort zone.

5.     Insights that inspire innovation don’t come from a questionnaire or user group.   When innovators like Steve Jobs and (Sony co founder) Akio Morita famously declare, “We don’t do market research,” what they really mean is that they know tools like traditional surveys, focus groups and customer panels tend to gather customers’ imperfect recollections of past choices and their guesses about future behaviour. This feedback data doesn’t paint an accurate picture for a company’s developers and designers of what a new-to-the-market product innovation should be. To tap into hidden customer motivations, unspoken preferences, and tacit feelings, expert researchers put on their social anthropologist hat for brands like Coca-Cola, Intel, LEGO, Herman Miller, IKEA, and (yes) Apple and Sony to conduct ethnographic observation of people in natural settings so they can understand the context of product use and gain glimpses into the future. This type of research is time-consuming and expensive, but it provides insights that traditional market research techniques can’t. At Chaordix, we’ve found that observing a digital co-creation community that is collaborating daily on creative projects, sharing stories and photos of their lives and memories, building upon each other’s ideas, celebrating participant successes, and hanging out in the community café to chat gives brands the opportunity to scale their access to this type of observational insight data that sparks innovation.

6.     Constraints drive creativity and innovation.   We’ve learned that too many broad, open-ended discussions (“Let’s talk about how our product makes you feel.”) and vague aspirational challenges (“Let’s reinvent the retail experience!”) tend to diminish meaningful participation. Whereas activities and creative challenges that are designed with the right mix of constraints or limitations will actually drive more participation. So our Chaordix methodology draws upon the best creativity and innovation workflows (Design Thinking, Creative Problem Solving, LEGO Serious Play, etc.), proven constraint-based creative techniques (analogy, metaphor, photo elicitation, attribute configuration, rich storytelling, etc.), and our own unique methods to create a playful and powerful participant experience.

7.     Good gamification heightens participation and delight.   We were early implementers of basic gamification techniques including recognition badges, competition points, leaderboards and so forth. Over the years, we’ve also learned the value of building in more advanced gamification designs and incentives that are important to help support a community culture that is in harmony with a brand’s values, as well as bringing shared moments of excitement, delight and fun to the participation experience.

8.     People crave variety and it’s the biggest single driver of engagement and creativity.   We’ve been inspired by the best digital and print designers to ensure the activity content and creative challenges in Chaordix-powered communities are fresh, differentiated, and highly visual. Innovation research has shown that giving participants a variety of things to do, and including visual media/stimulation, creates more interest and engagement in participants, as well as helping them contribute more novel submissions.

9.     Let them love your brand.   One of our great sources of inspiration at Chaordix is designer and entrepreneur, Yves Béhar, who said in a 2010 interview, “Participation is the new brand loyalty.” Customers and employees truly want to participate directly in the future of the brands they care about the most. Co-creation asks that companies see these brand community participants as peers in the innovation process. Let them behind your brand’s “velvet rope” and they’ll surprise you with how much they care and what they can contribute to your success. We see it every day at Chaordix.

Sharon M. McIntyre, Chief Social Scientist, Chaordix