Are 'ordinary' people capable of coming up with ideas for products and services that will change the world? Yes -- and in the future, such breakthroughs may not only become more prevalent than those engineered by experts or geniuses in a particular field, they may actually become the most important source of creative breakthroughs. That's the conclusion reached by longtime Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile in her working paper "In Pursuit of Everyday Creativity," which was made available earlier this week.
Technology is enabling open innovation, user innovation, and citizen innovation to flourish, Amabile states. And indeed, evidence of these trends abounds. For example, consider GE Fuse, the open innovation platform launched by the industry giant earlier this year. Fuse invites engineers and scientists from all over the world to solve pressing high-level problems. Its most recent design challenge (for which there are cash prizes) addresses corrosion in the oil and gas industry. The project brief is remarkably detailed, laying out exactly what GE is looking for in terms of a solution.
Transparency and collaboration are valued, which is a hallmark of these new trends. Throughout the duration of the contest, for example, project managers will host multiple live Q&A sessions. The discussion section is also public. The ultimate goal of GE Fuse is, unsurprisingly, to accelerate product and technology development. To do that, the company is tapping the power of the crowd.
In my experience, people are motivated to create for specific reasons. They're looking for acknowledgement and recognition, not a paycheck. Maybe they cannot satiate their curiosity. They might be personally plagued and thus motivated to solve a problem. (That's one reason why user innovation, the phenomenon in which "companies that produce new goods and services rely on users of those goods and services to come up with and even help develop and implement new ideas" continues to pick up speed.)
Amabile's theory does not surprise me. Early on in my career, I did freelance design work for the toy company Applause. When I visited, I remember wondering, why do they need me? They had all these designers. Then I studied the faces and body language of the designers before me. It was clear to me that these people did not particularly love what they were doing. There were deadlines to meet and they were probably being asked to work on projects they had no interest in. Just because they were there didn't mean they were going to put their best foot forward.
When you create, design, or invent for yourself, you're obsessed. There's a big difference.
In his article "5 Reasons Why Volunteers are the Best Innovators," innovation expert Jeffrey Phillips emphasizes the role of enthusiasm in cultivating creativity. "Innovation requires -- no, it demands -- enthusiasm," he writes. People who have no passion for their work will fulfill a creative assignment quickly to get back to their regular jobs, he argues.
I very much agree.
This gets at part of the reason why I believe so much in the power of everyday people to bring their ideas to market. Simply put, no one else will ever care as much as you do. That may sound harsh, but what I mean is, product development is typically defined by a series of stops and starts. Complications arise. You're doing something new, after all. Champions are needed to usher any product or service over the finish line.
Never underestimate your ability to solve problems related to product development. Not being an expert can actually help you.
Last week, Quirky's new president Gina Waldhorn told me flatly, "Open innovation is on the roadmap of all of the Fortune 500 companies." How could it not be? But, as she pointed out, successfully implementing a system that works is far from easy. Former OXO president Alex Lee once memorably likened parsing through ideas to digging through a flea market. Sure, you might find something. But how long is it going to take you?
I predict corporate partnerships with crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo and corporate startup accelerators such as Slingshot will become increasingly prevalent.
Read the writing on the wall. Companies are looking for your ideas. There are more opportunities than ever before to show them you're an asset.
First, you must believe you are.