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How to Produce Innovations

How to Produce Innovations, illustrative photo

Credit: Alicia Kubista

You have an idea for something new that could change your company, maybe even the industry. What do you do with your idea? Promote it through your employer's social network? Put a video about it on YouTube? Propose it on Kickstarter and see if other people are interested? Found a startup? These possibilities have murky futures. Your employer might not be interested, the startup might fail, the video might not go viral, the proposal might not attract followers. And if any of these begins to look viable, it could be several years before you know if your idea is successful. In the face of these uncertainties, it would be easy to give up.

Do not give up so easily. Difficulty getting ideas adopted is a common complaint among professionals. In this column, I discuss why it might not be as difficult as it looks.

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The Apparent Weediness of Adoption

Bob Metcalfe's famous story of the Ethernet illustrates the difficulties.2 With the provocative title "invention is a flower, innovation is a weed" he articulated the popular impression that creating an idea is glamorous and selling it is grunt work. In his account of Ethernet and the founding of 3Com to sell Ethernets, the invention part happened in 1973–1974 at Xerox PARC. It produced patents, seminal academic papers, and working prototypes. The Ethernet was adopted within Xerox systems. Metcalfe left Xerox in 1979 to found 3Com, which developed and improved the technology and championed it for an international standard (achieved in 1983 as IEEE 802.3). Metcalfe tells of many hours on the road selling Ethernets to executives who had never heard of the technology; he often had only a short time to convince them Ethernet was better than their current local-network technology and they could trust him and his company to deliver. He did a lot of "down in the weeds" work to get Ethernet adopted.

Metcalfe summarized his experience saying the invention part took two years and the adoption part took 10. He became wealthy not because he published a good paper but because he sold Ethernets for 10 years. He found this work very satisfying and rewarding.

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Sense 21

I would like to tell a personal story that sheds light on why adoption might be rewarding. In 1993, I created a design course for engineers. I called it "Designing a new common sense for engineering in the 21st century," abbreviated "Sense 21." The purpose of this course was to show the students how innovation works and how they might be designers who can intentionally produce innovations.

I became interested in doing this after talking to many students and learning about the various breakdowns they had around their aspirations for producing positive change in their organizations and work environments. These students were seniors and graduate students in the age group 20–25. They all were employed by day and took classes in the evening. The breakdowns they discussed with me included: suffering time crunch and information overload, inability to interest people in their ideas, frustration that other "poor" ideas are selected instead of their obviously "better" ideas, belief that good ideas sell themselves, revulsion at the notion you have to sell ideas, complaints that other people do not listen, and complaints that many customers, teammates, and bosses were jerks. I wanted to help these students by giving them tools that would enable them to navigate through these problems instead of being trapped by them. I created the Sense 21 course for them.

I announced to the students that the course outcome is "produce an innovation." That meant each of them would find an innovation opportunity and make it happen. To get there we would need to understand what innovation is—so we can know what we are to produce—and to learn some foundational tools of communication that are vital for making it happen.

We spent the first month learning the basics of generating action in language—specifically speech acts and the commitments they generate, and how those commitments shape their worlds.1 There is no action without a commitment, and commitments are made in conversations. The speech acts are the basic moves for making commitments. What makes this so fundamental is there are only five kinds of commitments (and speech acts) and therefore the basic communication tools are simple, universal, and powerful. With this we were challenging the common sense that the main purpose of language is to communicate messages and stories. We were after a new sense: with language we make and shape the world.

The alternative sense of language as generator and shaper gave rise to a new definition of automation.

Everett Rogers, whose work on innovation has been very influential since 1962, believed communication was essential to innovation. Paraphrasing Rogers: "Innovation is the creation of a novel proposal that diffuses through the communication channels of a social network and attracts individuals to decide to adopt the proposal."3

The message sense of communication permeates this view: an innovation proposal is an articulation and description of a novel idea to solve a problem, and adoption is an individual decision made after receiving messages about the proposal.

My students struggled with this definition of innovation. They could not see their own agency in adoption. How do they find and articulate novel ideas? What messages should they send, over which channels? How do they find and access existing channels? Should they bring the message to prospective adopters by commercials, email, or personal visits? What forms of messages are most likely to influence a positive decision? How do they deal with the markedly different kinds of receptivity to messages among early, majority, and laggard adopters? Should they be doing something else altogether? The definition gave no good answers for such questions.

The alternative sense of language as generator and shaper gave rise to a new definition of innovation, which we used in the course: "Innovation is adoption of new practice in a community, displacing other existing practices."

The term "practice" refers to routines, conventions, habits, and other ways of doing things, shared among the members of a community. Practices are embodied, meaning people perform them without being aware they are exercising a skill. Technologies are important because they are tools that enable and support practices. Since people are always doing something, adopting a new practice means giving up an older one. This was the most demanding of all the definitions of innovation. It gives an acid test of whether an innovation has happened.

With this formulation, student questions shifted. Who is my community? How do I tell whether my proposal will interest them? Is training with a new tool a form of adoption? Who has power to help or resist? Their questions shifted from forms of communication to how they could engage with their community. A summary answer to their engagement questions was this process:

  • Listen for concerns and breakdowns in your community
  • Gather a small team
  • Design and offer a new tool—a combination or adaptation of existing technologies that addresses the concern
  • Mobilize your community into using the tool
  • Assess how satisfied they are with their new practice

To start their project, I asked them to find a small group of about five people in their work environment. This group would be their innovating community. I did not impose much structure on them because I wanted them to learn how to navigate the unruly world they would be discovering. I asked them to give progress reports to the whole group, who frequently gave them valuable feedback and gave me opportunities to coach the group.

Here is an example of an incident that helped a student—let's call him "Michael"—learn to listen for concerns. Michael was unhappy with me because I declined his request to let him use workstations in my lab for a project unrelated to the lab. In class, I asked Michael to repeat his request. He did so enthusiastically and quickly fell into a confrontational mood. He tried half a dozen different arguments on me, all variations on the theme that I was acting unethically or irrationally in denying his request. None moved me. Soon the entire class was offering suggestions to Michael. None of that moved me either. After about 10 minutes, Michael hissed, "Are you just playing with me? Saying no just for spite? What's wrong with my request? It's perfectly reasonable!" I said, "You have not addressed any of my concerns." With utter frustration, he threw his hands into the air and exclaimed, "But I don't even know what you are concerned about!" I smiled at him, leaned forward, and said, "Exactly."

Could it be that finding out the concerns of your community might be as simple as asking "What are your concerns?"

Convulsed by a Great Aha!, Michael turned bright red and proclaimed, "Geez, now I get what you mean by listening." The other members of the class looked startled and got it too. Then they excitedly urged him on: "Ask him what he is concerned about!" This he did. Soon he proposed to fashion his project to help contribute to the goals of the lab. I was seduced. We closed a deal.

Could it be that finding out the concerns of your community might be as simple as asking "What are your concerns?"

By the end of the semester we had worked our way though the stages of the process and coached on other fine points. They all succeeded in producing an innovation. In our final debriefing they proclaimed an important discovery: innovations do not have to be big.

That was very important. The innovation stories they had learned all their lives told them all innovations are big world-shakers and are the work of geniuses. However, their own experiences told them they could produce small innovations even if they were not geniuses. Moreover, they saw they could increase the size of their innovation communities over time as they gained experience.

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Getting It Done

A cursory reading of the Metcalfe story could lead you to conclude the full Ethernet innovation took 10 years. That is a very long time. If you believe you will not see the fruits of your work for 10 years, you are unlikely to undertake the work. If on the other hand you believe your work consists of an ongoing series of small innovations, you will find your work enjoyable, and after 10 years you will find it has added up to a large innovation. This is what Metcalfe wanted to tell us. He enjoyed his work and found that each encounter with a new company that adopted Ethernet was a new success and a new small innovation.

The students said one other thing that startled me. They said that taking the course and doing the project was life altering for them. The reason was the basic tools had enabled them to be much more effective in generating action through all parts of their lives. The realization that we generate action through our language is extraordinarily powerful.

If we can tell the stories and satisfying experiences of innovators doing everyday, small innovation, we will have a new way to tell the innovation story and lead people to more success with their own innovations. Innovation is no ugly weed. Like a big garden of small flowers, innovation is beautiful.

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1. Flores, F. Conversations for Action and Collected Essays. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

2. Metcalfe, R. Invention is a flower, innovation is a weed. MIT Technology Review (Nov. 1999);

3. Rogers, E. Diffusion of Innovations (5th ed. 2003). Free Press, 1962.

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Peter J. Denning ( is Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Cebrowski Institute for information innovation at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, is Editor of ACM Ubiquity, and is a past president of ACM. The author's views expressed here are not necessarily those of his employer or the U.S. federal government.

Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2016 ACM, Inc.


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