Friday, January 29, 2010

Wagging the dog: Using collaboration to shorten time-to-traction

One of our partners at the world's largest management consultancy used to channel William Gibson to remind us that 'The future is here, it's just unevenly distributed'.

Now, Bill Buxton, a researcher at Microsoft, describes The Long Nose of Innovation as the path that the real world of innovation takes in its journey out into the world. The path is largely through an interative process of idea refinement over time...usually much more time than we might think. Here's the chart he uses:

What's obvious, even if the words 'Long Nose' hadn't been used, is that it's the mirror image of Chris Anderson's popularization of statistical power laws, the Long Tail :

And while it might be tempting to relate these graphs as handing off to one another (ideas that enter through the nose exit through the, um, other graph), I believe it would be erroneous to do so.

Why? Because while Buxton's Nose describes an idea's 'time to traction', Anderson's Tail describes a distribution of the markets for an idea...and many ideas will stand tall only under a very short ceiling: Tongue piercing for example.

So what: Letting the tail wag the dog

The two views can be joined in the context of collaboration.

In the Long Nose, the time that an idea spends in the refinement and augmentation phase can determine market potential. For those companies whose business strategy is built on large-scale adoption of innovative products or services, shortening the time to traction would seem to present an opportunity for competitive advantage.

And what better way for product developers, researchers and marketers to move quickly through the iterative refinement and augmentation phase of complex products and services than by engaging the long-tail interests of collaborators?


Something happening and something being made to happen are two different things. Aside from reading this rambling post (which might generously be characterized as part of the refinement and augmentation phase of Buxton's Long Nose idea!), marketers and their bosses can make reducing time-to-traction a planned process using cost-effective, long tail approaches to collaboration.

A post on creating  The Collaboratory back in May contains some details and further examples, but the gist is this:

1. Engage lead users first
These are the user scientists who have a need for something other than a homogenous service/product offering. They are recognizable because they already have adopted or modified a product/service to fit their needs. Most importantly, they have a bias for collaboration, experimentation and persistence...and they are already your customers.

2. Structure the participatory process:
Participatory design requires much or how little will depend on the expectations of the output and the size of the community. But in general the structure should focus on four stages...
  • Identifying issues/opportunitities (in other words, the questions to explore)
  • Prioritizing the issues/opportunities against criteria (what comes first--or last--based on what success criteria might look like. The hypotheses if you like)
  • Ideation/Solution building (the actual design/create activities)
  • Test-Modify-Retest (validating innovation against the outcome criteria)
3. Reward participation:
The reward can be monetary--or it can be the emotional notion of ownership and contribution to community. The expectations should be honest, transparent and upfront...which is to say, you'll have to work with a lawyer on issues of ownership and licensing, but tread lightly lest you trample the trust inherent in effective collaboration.

Personally, I find occasional comfort in the cultural myth of the lone visionary locked in the garage, only to emerge holding the revolutionary, next big new thing we all need. In the very complex real world, though, I know that a better mousetrap usually comes from refining the diverse collective experiences with the current mousetrap: the domicile in which it will be used, the disposal practices of the local environment, cultural beliefs about the sanctity of mouse life... 

Collaborating with niche groups of people who are highly engaged around the many contexts within which every product or service is used is one way to accelerate the learning required for real innovation to take hold ...and begin to embed itself in the collective imagination.

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