Co-creation is the idea of the moment. Wherever I go lately the desire to get closer to customers, stakeholders and suppliers is at the center of everyone's strategic planning. I saw this emphatically driven home recently in the Driving Strategic Innovation program, a collaborative venture between my school, IMD, and MIT's Sloan School of Management, where nearly 60 chief innovation officers came together for a week to discuss trends in innovation. They came from all types of industries, from manufacturing to services, from government to the sciences and from all across the world.
The surprise was that at virtually every opportunity to describe or construct an effective innovation solution, these veterans immediately turned to some type of collaborative arrangement, whether to enlarge their idea pool, control costs or ensure that projects got done on time. They saw co-creating new offerings in association with value-chain partners, either upstream (suppliers) or downstream (customers, or customers' customers), as the smartest way to ensure a good idea's acceptance and commercial success.
What is remarkable about all this is that not so long ago these same professionals would most likely have been concerned only with innovation that occurred within their organizations, things they could legitimately control. After all, that's how innovation was done for most of recorded history. For decades business school teaching on innovation focused on building more effective filters to avoid the pursuit of ideas that wouldn't lead to commercial success. Today it's almost the reverse. We can manage very nicely within our organizations, but we need to work more effectively outside them, to bring the outside in, so that we can shorten the time and distance between those who have the next good ideas and those who can benefit from them. Rather than being preoccupied with filtering ideas, we are hungry to get more and better ideas. We can always filter later.
In my forthcoming book The Idea Hunter, which will be published in April, my co-authors and I argue that to stay ahead in today's world, astute companies and individuals must make the hunt for new ideas continuous and relentless. They need to understand that almost always the more ideas you can work with, the better. In fact, taking this the next logical step, the more minds you can engage in the hunt for new ideas, the better. That has become part of my professional mantra: More ideas are always better than fewer; more minds are always better than fewer. Always, not sometimes. And, of course, the more different minds you can enlist, the greater your chance of finding a really different idea. You will have to make tough calls on not pursing quite a few good ideas out of the many you get, but getting them is more important than worrying about how to filter them. Collaboration has to become a way of life, not an occasional experiment.
Only a few weeks ago I had a chance to try this first-hand. I was engaged in a session where executives at a fast-moving global consumer goods company were concerned about brand-building. They wanted to generate "wow brands," ones that so excite consumers that they create a viral buzz in the marketplace, and they do so repeatedly. Apple, Red Bull and Football Club Barcelona are three examples. They are exciting and energizing, and each has created a tribal level of allegiance among its customers/supporters/fans.
The challenge for this company was to apply lessons from such brands. The wow factor is more an emotional, visceral reaction rather than an intellectual one. Therefore to try to teach people about "wowness" in a classroom way would be far less effective, maybe futilely so, than to invite a target audience into one's planning from the very start, to help define, from distinctive individual perspectives (the audience came from around the world), what "wowness" meant to them and why.
In a sense we were all teaching one another, simultaneously, and co-creating the course as we did. That changed everything. My principal role as a professor was no longer to broadcast the truth but to provide a framework and a vocabulary with which each participant could make his or her own experience part of what became a shared story about what it took to create a wow brand. The results were extraordinary.
Among the biggest lessons we learned were:
--Wow brands dream bigger than others, but if you rely only on corporate insiders for your dreams, you will have very few dreams.
--Wow brands all rely on regular customers to share their dreams so as to create the future.
--Most companies push to customers, rather than inviting their customers to pull. Wow brands enjoy the power of pull from their fully engaged, co-creating customers.
--Every organization needs to appoint someone to be responsible for making co-creation happen; it doesn't happen on its own.
--Co-creation requires the managerial self-confidence to allow outsiders to help plot an organization's future.
--Finally, successful managers need to understand the value of social networking technologies in making sound strategic decisions.
My biggest personal takeaway from the wow brand experience was that, as always, getting more minds engaged in sharing the burden of creating new ideas both made it easier to find those new ideas and also produced much more interesting ideas than if I had tried to do it myself or with a small team. The big challenge, of course, is trust--giving-up absolute control over end results and trusting others to contribute their best to a group effort. The participants, in fact, spoke of "fear" when it came to sharing idea leadership with their value-chain partners, but, in the end, we all agreed that the power of the final results was worth far more than the security of controlling who participated, and when and how.
Co-creation is the way of the future for all corporate innovative activity, and collaboration--which has become one of my school's central values--will be how we go about all of what we do. Remember: More ideas are always better than fewer, and more minds are always better than fewer. Collaboration makes that possible.