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Is open innovation simply looking under the streetlight?


When it comes to having creative thoughts and innovative ideas, there can often be a perception that we need to look far outside of our traditional field to find that bright idea.  After all, if the answer is right under our feet, can it really be that revolutionary?

This line of thought is summarised nicely in the parable of the streetlight:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”

In innovation terms, it suggests that if we stick with purely what we already know, then we’re akin to the drunk looking for his keys.

Well, maybe that might not always be the case.  A recent paper, published in Design Studies by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that the best answers may well be the ones closest to us.

“For people needing fresh inspiration for a problem, these findings imply that you shouldn’t just go off and talk to random people or read things totally unrelated to your problem,” the researchers say. “These might yield novel ideas, but not necessarily … useful and novel ideas.”

The researchers gathered data from the open innovation platform OpenIDEO on the various innovation challenges hosted on the site, and the kind of people that participated in solving them.

The collection came in several phases.  The first saw information gathered on the inspiration stage of each challenge, whereby participants are encouraged to post up descriptions of problems that are related to that posted onto the site.

This is then followed by a phase wherein participants seek to make those ideas slightly more concrete, adding some meat to the bones of each idea.

The experts from OpenIDEO then draw up a shortlist of the most viable solutions to develop them further.  The whole process, from end to end, takes around 10 weeks.

Looking near or far

This data was then plugged into an algorithm to determine the distance each idea had traveled from the original problem.  This algorithm was tested against an expert to prove its mettle.

The algorithm was then tested against the ideas chosen by the IDEO experts when compiling their shortlist in each challenge process.  It emerged that the bulk of the ideas chosen for each shortlist had traveled a very short distance indeed.

“Instead of seeing a bigger effect of far inspirations,” the researchers say, “I saw that ideas built on source ideas more closely related to the problem tended to be selected more often. And I saw the same pattern across 12 very different problems—ranging from preventing human rights violations to fostering greater connectedness in urban communities to improving employment prospects for young people.”

The researchers therefore draw the conclusion that the best insights tend to come closest to home, with many incremental changes expanding things bit by bit.

What do you think?


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