Why Innovation Depends On Creative Approaches

Two recent articles from The New York Times illustrate why, for innovation to work, you need to keep updating your playbook.

Serious Games And Biochemical Research
When a team of researchers at the University of Washington wanted to unlock the puzzle of protein folding – a complex process that moves faster than we can observe – they decided to crowdsource the investigation. The team posed the question as a serious game, a medium that sometimes produces better answers than what people normally envision as the process of crowdsourcing. 

Instead of just throwing out the question (How do our bodies build these proteins?) to an anonymous audience that may or may not have been motivated to answer it, the researchers built a game, Foldit, that simulated the protein-building process. The motivations were no different than any game: the satisfaction of beating the game at some level; the score that both rewards you for your current level of accomplishment and dares you to do better; the public standings that inject another level of competition beyond beating your last score. Humans can be very competitive creatures, even when the only rewards are intangible, which is why certain types of serious games often stimulate more participation than other approaches to a problem. (Check out the book Drive by Daniel Pink for one explanation of this behavior.)

Crowdsourcing is a great concept, in theory, but in practice, you need to figure out what will motivate people to participate and what will drive them to maximize the quality of their contribution. By channeling participation through a game, the UW team recruited 57,000 contributors. Out of that number, enough people were motivated to achieve the highest score possible, thus increasing the quality of many individual contributions. That's a far better result than the team would have achieved had they used an obscure biochemistry forum to post the question, "So, what do you think?"

Open Source And Medical Research
We all owe a big thanks to William Potter, Neil Buckholtz, and other medical researchers who championed the "open sourcing" of data about Alzheimer's. Individually, corporations, foundations, and universities involved in Alzheimer's research lacked enough information to make progress on treating or curing the disease. By sharing their findings, they now collectively have enough data to make significant progress. In a domain where who publishes first can make your academic career, or who develops a drug first can make a company's fortunes, the willingness to share information is a big leap of faith. (More like a running long-jump of faith.)

In the technology industry, we've seen similar changes in the willingness to expose information to competitors. For example, both Salesforce and RightNow are very open about their product roadmaps. Both companies are banking on their ability to attract and retain customers that don't depend on the boffo product launch announcing the next whizbang set of features that nobody anticipated. That's another way of saying that the audience at these traditional launches have had no opportunity to figure out why and how to adopt them. (And vendors wonder why launches often fail?)

In both medical research and the tech industry, some companies have realized that their ability to deliver value is what makes them competitive. Showing your cards is ultimately less important than knowing how to play them.

[Many thanks to Peter Burris for the link to the protein folding article.]