Looking to be more innovative? Here's how to successfully tap into the ideas of your external community.
"The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas."
These words were originally spoken by two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling. You need not be a brilliant scientist to appreciate the simple concept: the more ideas you collect, the better the chance that one or more of them will be truly unique and innovative.
Many of today's most successful organizations maximize their potential to develop truly innovative breakthroughs by creating internal cultures that encourage the collection of diverse ideas. In these organizations, the best ideas can come from anywhere—not just top management—and often do.
I should know. I spent a decade working for one such meritocracy: the open source technology company Red Hat. During my time there, we grew from a 100-person startup in Durham, North Carolina, to a global technology leader with $1 billion in annual revenues and offices in almost 60 countries around the world.
If a key to creating an innovative organization is empowering as many people as possible inside the organization to contribute their best ideas, Red Hat took things a step further. We didn't just involve the people inside the organization in the idea-collection process. We also collaborated with the community of people outside the organization, including open source software contributors, customers, and partners. We created an open, collaborative company that innovated both inside and outside its walls.
While the community of people who interact with your organization may be an untapped source of new innovations, successfully engaging these external community groups may be tougher than you think. Below are five simple tips to help your organization tap into the power of community and become more successful by expanding its innovation efforts beyond the company's own walls.
Map your community
The first step to engaging the community of people who interact with your organization is to make a map that shows you who is in the community. Beyond your own employees, who cares most about your success and might be willing to contribute to it? Some community groups will be obvious—such as customers and investors—but if ideas can come from anywhere, where else might they come from?
At Red Hat, many of the best innovations came from external software developers who worked on projects with us. In some cases, these were independent developers, but others worked for partners and even competitors. Because we were all innovating in the open and our software developers were sharing their ideas in the open source community too, every company could benefit from the cumulative effect of everyone's ideas. The rising tide lifted all ships.
Once you've identified all the groups that make up your external community, draw a map to show how each group interacts with your organization and with one another. Share a draft of your map with others in the organization to be sure to uncover every possible community group with whom you might want to engage.
Find and recruit community ambassadors
For each group you identify for the map, determine the people within your organization who already interact with or would consider themselves a member of this external community group. The people you identify are great candidates to be what I refer to as community ambassadors.
If an ambassador for a country is someone who represents a country's interests while living abroad, the ideal community ambassador is no different—someone who represents your organization while also "living" in the community group you've identified.
Ideally, you'll be able to choose people for this role who are currently active members of the community group or have worked with it in the past. Perhaps this means before she joined your organization she was already a customer or partner, so she understands what it is like to work with your organization from the outside. Or maybe he works in a job where he has regular, daily interaction or deep personal relationships with people in the external community.
In the open source world at Red Hat, we had many employees who worked on or had leadership roles in open source community projects. These people were natural fits as community ambassadors because they already knew members of the community personally.
When recruiting people to serve in community ambassador roles, look for those who are not only already participating in an external community group, but also are passionate about representing your organization. If a candidate is hesitant or not initially interested, he may not be the best fit. The best community ambassadors will be excited about the role, have strong communications and diplomatic skills, and have enough knowledge about the interests and priorities of the community to command respect from its members.
Avoid 'Tom Sawyer thinking'
Once your organization has mapped its brand community and identified the employees best suited to become community ambassadors, your first instinct might be to immediately jump to figuring out what problems you can get the community to solve for you. Not so fast!
I call this type of reaction "Tom Sawyer thinking." Remember the story from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer about Aunt Polly's fence? The story went something like this: Tom skips school and gets his clothes dirty in a fight. Aunt Polly gets upset and orders Tom to whitewash her fence on his day off as punishment. But Tom, being Tom, comes up with a scheme to get his friends to paint the fence for him and trade him their stuff for the privilege. Tom gets out of doing the work by convincing his friends to do it for him.
It drives me crazy when organizations approach innovating with the help of their community with a Tom Sawyer mindset: How can I convince my community to paint my fence for free. What worked for Tom Sawyer won't work for most organizations (and if it does, it may only work once).
Instead, organizations should approach these community groups with opportunities that help to ensure everyone's fences gets painted—the organization and the community. If you approach external groups with clearly selfish motivations and no obvious benefit for community members, you likely will be disappointed with how much they are willing to help you. But if you can frame challenges that not only benefit your organization, but also may help people in the community at the same time, your potential for collaborative innovation is unlimited.
Decide where to open up—and where not to open up
Not every aspect of your organization will be an ideal place to innovate with external community groups. You may have intellectual property or competitive reasons why opening up some parts of the organization just doesn't make sense. If it doesn't make sense, don't do it.
Instead look for places where it would be easy and mutually beneficial for your organization to open up to the external community. At Red Hat, we had a rule we referred to as "defaulting to open." This meant we would be as transparent as possible about the inner workings of the business by default, and keep things private only when we had a good reason. Most organizations operate the opposite way, closed by default and only sharing with the outside world when absolutely necessary.
The benefit of a default-to-open mindset is that you are collaborating openly as standard operating procedure rather than searching for one or two opportunities that make sense. Because of this, collaboration with the outside communities becomes more common, more natural, and less forced.
When looking for places to engage with external communities, I always start by looking at the opportunities where both the organization and community members might benefit. For example, perhaps you've had reports from several customers who think they could significantly increase their own revenues if one of your products had a certain feature. Because this opportunity for innovation would benefit both sides, it might be a perfect opportunity to collaborate.
We saw this situation happen often at Red Hat, where key customers needed a particular part of the software to do something it didn't currently do. Because these customers saw huge benefits for their own businesses if the feature was in place, many of them were willing to share their ideas for how the feature might be implemented. Some of them even put their own developers to work on writing code alongside our developers.
Look for places where there can be an obvious mutual exchange of value to find the best opportunities for opening up the innovation process to outside community groups.
Be of the community, not above the community
Let's face it: most organizations think of themselves as the center of a community ecosystem. But I bet most of the people in the external community don't see themselves in orbit around your organization.
Successful innovating with an external community requires an organization to show humility—not always having to be at the center of the universe. Does it always have to be your community? Do others always have to collaborate on your projects?
I prefer an "of the community, not above the community" approach to engaging external communities. What does this mean?
It means your organization doesn't need to lead or originate every community effort in which it is involved ("above the community"). It doesn't always have to set the agenda. Sometimes by simply joining or observing an existing effort ("of the community") rather than starting a new one of your own, you'll get more fresh ideas, more energy, and more contributions than if you force others to join your projects. And if you want to lead a project, you may find more success if you earn your right to lead from within through your contributions over time.
At Red Hat, we looked for the best and most promising open source software projects and, even if they didn't originate with Red Hat, we would still join them as participants. Sometimes this meant we'd enlist our own engineers to work on a project, sometimes we'd use our brand to help the effort gain more attention and credibility, and we might even help fund or finance it.
The key is being open to the possibility that the best innovative ideas for your organization might not only come from people outside the organization, but might even originate from efforts hatched outside the organization as well. Spend some time looking for promising innovative efforts to join forces with in the outside world rather than feeling like all innovation has to start with efforts you initiate. You may discover some amazing opportunities you were blind to before.
More ideas lead to better ideas
One of the key figures in the open source software movement is Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system. In explaining why he opened up the development of his software to any contributor who wanted to get involved versus developing it himself behind closed doors, Torvalds once said, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." By this he meant that the more people involved in the creation of the software, the more "bugs" (defects in the software) they could uncover quickly.
Surely two Linuses can't be wrong.
You'll get better ideas when you get more ideas. You'll solve more problems when you have more people working on them. So follow these five tips, and I hope you'll be on your way to having many more eyes both inside and outside your organization uncovering more ideas, helping you to determine the best ones, and turning them into innovations you would have never imagined possible before.