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Mosh Pit as Innovation Model

Progress
"Professionals" in any field come in two flavors: Knowledge Sharers and Knowledge Hoarders. The hoarders believe in the value of their "Intellectual Property"(IP). The products of their mind must be carefully guarded lest anyone steal their precious ideas. But let's face it--if our only "strategic advantage" is our ideas, we're probably screwed. Or as CDBaby's Derek Sivers put in in this post:
"It’s so funny when I hear people being so protective of ideas. (People who want me to sign an NDA to tell me the simplest idea.)
To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions."

Yes, there are some crucial exceptions, but for most of us, It's our implementation, not our idea that matters. Even those who create something revolutionary are still synthesizing... still drawing on the work of others, and making a creative leap. But even a big-ass gravel-hauling leap is still a leap, not a physics-violating idea that shimmered into the universe from nothin' but air.

It's how we apply those ideas.

How creative we are.

How useful we are.

How brave we are.

How technically skilled we are.

How we anticipate what our users will love.

How we learn from the ideas and work of others.

And from our (my co-authors and myself) perspective, it's not about our ideas, it's about what the ideas can do for our users.

Even if we are the only ones to have a specific new and protectable "idea" (unlikely), the moment we reveal it, everyone else will have it too. The barrier to entry today is way too low to use "intellectual property" as a main advantage. And all too often, we think we have a unique idea only to find that others are--independently--doing the same things.

I've found some wonderful discussions about this on other blogs (by people willing to share their ideas). The following are some snippets from recent and older posts on the topic:

Open Source Creativity from the wonderful-go-read-it-now Martini Shaker blog for creatives by Jeremy Fuksa:

"I used to work with a creative director who was (is) terribly paranoid about giving away trade secrets or any type of creative advantage to competitors. Now, if any of the things that he worried about were truly proprietary processes or special trade secrets that would be one thing… albeit very tinfoil hat-ish. But, all these “secrets” he was worried about...anything he was scared about losing control of was freely obtainable information in the first place. It just so happened that others in our area didn’t obtain that information as voraciously as I do."

"Case in point: I had an old colleague IM me to refresh his memory on how to add alpha channels into a Photoshop document. This CD got all freaky on me because I was “giving a competitor trade secrets and an unfair advantage.”

Whatever."

Jeremy's post pointed to another by Steve Hardy's Creative Generalist (another terrific blog). Steve's post linked to Mark Cuban's post, which talks about how Mark believes his "knowledge advantage" comes not from, say, buying, stealing, or inventing some incredibly new IP, but from relentlessly seeking out and consuming the same information that's freely "available to anyone who wanted it."

An Information Management blog, by Karl Nelson, has a post titled Open Source Knowledge that includes:

"A few years back a professor I had talked about the shelf-life of knowledge. His point was that information goes stale quickly, especially in the technology world. There isn't much value in keeping it locked away. The value, in the information and knowledge space, is in sharing what you know."

And finally, Karl references one of my long-time favorites Evelyn Rodriguez. In Open Source Knowledge & Innovation, Evelyn quotes from David Maister's book, The Trusted Advisor, with:

"The conclusions many advisors draw are that they must be careful about giving away the store... The truth is, expertise is like love: not only is it unlimited, you destroy it only by not giving it away."

This is not a none-of-us-is-smarter-than-all-of-us thing (which I hate). This is about each of us being smart at different things. Not as a "team", but as individuals with our own self-interests. If I help you, and you help him, and then he helps her, and she helps... and so on, sooner or later someone in that chain-reaction does something I benefit from directly or indirectly. It works in open-source software, where developers are practicing the idea of "code it forward", and all contributors utlimately benefit (as do the end-users of their work). Why should it be so different for many of the things-that-aren't-code?

It's also brainstorming on an impossibly large scale. And what's the worst that can happen?

A few weeks' back, I gave the closing keynote at Webstock, and I wanted to include slides (and quiz questions) on what went on during the conference. But what struck me the most during the week was how all these professionals gave away so much of their "secret sauce." How they helped their direct competitors--those fighting for the same clients and jobs--become better. In the end, I believe, everyone there recognized the benefit we all get in pushing the world forward, one user experience at a time.

And we'll get there a hell of a lot quicker if we stop guarding our knowledge like a jealous lover.

Our success is not about what we think up, but rather who we think about.

Issac Newton said, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." That was just fine in a world where knowledge doubled in half-centuries, not mere months. To make progress today, it's more like, "If I have seen further, it is by being thrown up by the mosh pit of my peers." And we all get a turn.

[Related link: Bill Kinnon on The Generous Web (he's been thinking about this a lot lately. I'm a fan.]

Posted by Kathy on June 10, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

Your observations remind me of a Alan Cooper quote I'm fond of reciting. He said,"Best to market always trumps first to market". To your point, lots of people have the same great ideas around the same time, but not everyone helps the user kick ass with their version. Take the iPod... it wasn't the first digital music player on the market, not even by a long shot. But it's certainly been the best to date.

Posted by: alicia | Jun 10, 2006 9:39:09 PM

Kathy, you and I think alike. I almost did a similar visual today! Great post and totally true. I think the folks you have on the right side of the "pong" posess this type of mind:

http://darmano.typepad.com/logic_emotion/2006/06/anatomy_of_the_.html

It's a shame that people get freaked out and try to horde knowledge. It's not going to last for long.

PS, congrats on the Businessweek press.

-DA

Posted by: David Armano | Jun 10, 2006 10:23:32 PM

Sheesh, an awful lot of words to make a simple, basic point.

Posted by: Shep | Jun 11, 2006 12:51:45 AM

@Shep: It is easy to make a point, but when you make a point you should illustrate it right so the reader gets the right perspective.

Great article. I totally agree. This new wave of sharing seems to be originating from the internet and its open model. In the past it was difficult to find like minded people besides in your own office or maybe on some user conference you happen to know about. The internet makes it possible to find like minded people out of a large population very easily because you search unconsciously for each other. Ideas are shared easily when you are on the same frequency. The feeling of learning of each other is very rewarding.

It is indeed nice to look back at how people in physics began to share their thoughts by sharing ideas in letters with well known collegues. (like also Einstein did a lot) They were the fore front of sharing because they lacked the commercial needs to keep things to themselves. It is nice to see that the internet itself grow out of that need of connecting the academic community so they could share their ideas more quickly.

I think this age of the internet has really accelerated the evolution of knowledge and we are still on the beginning of seeing the scope of what is happening. And it takes a while before the more conservative people pick it up I think.

Posted by: Jurriaan Mous | Jun 11, 2006 3:23:09 AM

Hiya Kathy...

I'm in the process of co-creating South Africa's first open source industrial theatre company. We specialise in Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre, a form of interactive role-playing that generates empowered comversations.

We're currently grappling with our company structure, and I've written up a rough draft of it on OPEN BUSINESS. I'd love you and your readers to grapple with it with us, and offer insights.

My blog post is at: http://schmucknews.blogspot.com/2006/06/creating-south-africas-first-open.html

And the Open Business article is at: http://www.openbusiness.cc/2006/05/28/exploring-a-structure-for-an-open-source-business/

Blue skies
love
Roy

Posted by: Roy Blumenthal | Jun 11, 2006 4:12:51 AM

The problem with the "wisdom of crowds" is that they sometimes degenerate into a mob. It's in times like these that I'm glad we can have the "wisdom of experts" to overrule the mob, for the mob rarely thinks beyond its immediate needs.

Posted by: Daniel Berger | Jun 11, 2006 8:41:37 AM

@ Daniel Berger
You are missing an important point. The "mob" as you call it (people who are not experts) balance out the experts, and then you have the "wisdom of crowds" affect. Some experts are sometimes wrong. They are blinded by the fact that they are experts, and can have a bias to defend their expertise. Go read the book or listen to this talk by the author at SXSW 2006.
http://server1.sxsw.com/2006/coverage/SXSW06.INT.20060311.WisdomOfCrowds.mp3

Posted by: Nick Dnice | Jun 11, 2006 10:54:32 AM

Here is the link to the audio of the talk at SXSW by James Suroweiki.

Posted by: Nick Dnice | Jun 11, 2006 10:57:17 AM

Amen, Kathy. For anyone who has worked in a professional services firm (law, management consulting, etc.), Maister's books are dead-on. His blog is a treasure trove of great insights, too (davidmaister.com).

Posted by: Rich Berger | Jun 11, 2006 2:17:21 PM

I couldn't agree more with your premise.

I am a high school vice-principal and I have confirmed, through experimentation with our teachers, that the best decisions for the school always come from dealing with issues as a group. Everyone has their own "expertise" and experience to draw from and when we share these freely and without agenda, the wisdom of the crowd inevitably points us in the right direction. Great teachers use this approach with their students too. Hopefully these young people will take these skills into whatever work environments they end up in, where they generally are sadly lacking.

Open Space Technology appears to be an excellent way to organize the conditions necessary for groups to get the most out of working together.

Thanks for an excellent dose of inspiration today!

Posted by: Michael Languay | Jun 11, 2006 2:42:57 PM

Alicia: Thanks for the Cooper quote, and I completely agree! Head First Java entered an extremely crowded field -- more than 2000 currently-selling Java books on Amazon at the time, and almost everyone we talked to thought it was a very bad idea. I would change the word "best" though, to "Most wanted by market trumps first to market," assuming its a significant enough difference to overcome the inertia the "first to market" gets.

David: First of all, I love your blog! And that's a great post with the brain discussion (I was planning to link to it tomorrow, I think).
"PS, congrats on the Businessweek press"

What Businessweek press? I don't know about this, but thanks for telling me. Is it on one of their blogs?

Shep: Being concise requires two things:
1) Excellent writing skills
2) Lots of time (like that Pascal quote that goes something like, "If I'd had more time I'd have written a shorter letter..."

I have neither. This is a big part of why I use graphics--the text is there to support the picture, but you don't *need* to read the "awful lot of words" to get the point.
But I still appreciate the feedback.

Jurriaan: Excellent point -- the scientific (and academic) community has been way ahead in this sharing thing... wasn't that the initial motivation/reason for the World Wide Web? I agree that the internet has made this rapid, networked sharing of ideas so much quicker and easier, and the quicker the feedback on our ideas, the more likely we are to make rapid changes...

Roy: you had me at "industrial theatre". I scanned the OpenBusiness article and I plan to spend more time as soon as I get a chance (I am sitting in the Phoenix airport on a big layover).

Daniel: I was about to say exactly what Nick said. I apologize if I assume wrong, but I'm guessing that you have not read the book. Somewhere on this blog I have a post (I think it's called "one of us is smarter than all of us") that talks about how I interpreted "Wisdom of Crowds" to mean "Wisdom of group/team/mob" and I refused to read it. Then I heard the author give a talk where in the first three sentences he explained that he meant something very different--the *opposite* of my interpretation of the title (and possibly yours). His claim: while ants become smarter the more they work as a group, HUMANS become dumber the more they work as a group.

I see a lot of misuse of the phrase "Wisdom of crowds", but it's an awfully misleading title. Still, it's easier to say than what he *actually means*, something closer to: "The Wisdom of the aggregate of independent individuals who have not been 'tainted' by too much interaction with one another."

Anyway, I agree with you on the wisdom of the mob, but my use of "Wisdom of Crowds" is precisely as James uses it in the book, which--as Nick said-- the aggregate of individuals can produce a result that is greater than even the smartest individual in that group. But only--and this is key--if it's not the result of a consensus. It's one of the best books I've read in the last few years, and I'm so glad I was wrong about the title...

Rich: thanks for the link to the blog and the book recommendation. I haven't read him, but now he's going on my list. So he has more than one book... is there one you'd recommend starting with?

Michael: I'd never thought of this in the context of teaching and students, but it makes sense. The big challenge is to harness the "collective intelligence" without the group devolving into a single mind. Keeping the sharp edges and expertise of the individuals that make up the group is tricky, but so worth it. It sounds like you have a great group of teachers there--sharing ideas "freely and without agenda" is something so often lacking in groups/teams.

I'm fascinated with the thought of high school students learning about (and using) the wisdom of crowds. Just the intro to that book would make a wonderful lesson... and he talks about some amazing (and simple) experiments that students can do to prove his points.

Cheers and thanks everyone. I don't know exactly when I'll be back online in the next few days (I'm speaking at a conference on Tuesday, and coming home Thursday), but I should be able to check in once or twice.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jun 11, 2006 3:56:54 PM

Everybody should read Open Innovation from Henry Chesbrough. Its a wonderful clear book which describes the process from the Closed to Open Innovation paradigm.

Posted by: Jens Krahe | Jun 12, 2006 12:30:46 AM

Point taken, Kathy. Silly of me to think you had the time to hone it down. Pascal is definitely right about that.

Posted by: Shep | Jun 12, 2006 12:42:42 AM

Great post, Kathy. It's good to hear your voice again.

It's also ironic that higher education has embraced so many walled gardens (read: course management systems) in its work these days, and paid comparatively little attention to the value and necessity of sharing its work openly.

Finally, I think you're right on about The Wisdom of Crowds. I had precisely the same response. Consensus seems like such a good, wholesome, humane, democratic goal, but JS makes it clear just how dangerous it can be. The book's point is exactly as you put it.

Posted by: Gardner | Jun 12, 2006 6:55:01 AM

Fantastic post! This is a perfect example of the open source creativity that I talked about in my original post... Giving an idea freely to someone who can expand it an adapt it into something new, something great!

As for my blog being "wonderful-go-read-it-now"... You've got to watch that kind of statement. You might give me the impression that I have half an idea of what I'm talking about!

Thanks for the thoughtful post, kind words, and the link-up. I look forward to reading more and more from you in the future.

Posted by: Jeremy Fuksa | Jun 12, 2006 7:12:10 AM

While I like how the post highlights the group aspect of sharing information I think the message here is one sided. For innovation and perhaps moving a crowd (select group) forward quickly (short distances only) the mosh pit is very important. I also think that for long term progress you still need the focus that the linear view brings to knowledge with its refinement and stability aspects. To be fair I also think proprietary is not inherent in linear (I think books are linear) so again there are mixed topics being thrown together here.

Posted by: Rod Gaither | Jun 12, 2006 7:49:48 AM

As a dancer now in a tech field, I love the idea of mosh pit as networking model! However, you've brought me one of the greatest frustrations of the morning, because the first thing I thought of in reading the "knowledge sharers"vs. "knowledge hoarders" was an essay I read a few months ago. In it, the author postulated that the real battle right now, in terms of "culture wars" or what have you, is not between conservatives & liberals or any other political, religious, racial, or other dichotomy--it's between two philosophies, that of Control vs. Communication (and yes, I had to put the caps in there, as they represent over-arching philosophies).

The frustration is, I can't find the essay now! Not in my del.icio.us, not on the web, not in my hardcopies (though I know I printed it out).

I also think there may be some analogies not so much as mosh pit (which is, after all, an individual experience) and contact improvisation, a dance form which does take the abilities of the individual and combines them with others to create a new dance every time.

Thanks, as always, for a great post.

Posted by: Gray Miller | Jun 12, 2006 8:50:21 AM

Great article, as always!

Just a bit about the Newton quote: I don't know if you have heard about the theory that he meant it as an ironic disparagement of Robert Hooke, whose reputation Newton took some pains to besmirch after Hooke's death. Hooke had a physical deformity, and was unusually small in stature, so Newton may have been mocking his ungiantlike physique.

Anyway, if true, it's doubly appropriate to have included that quote: Newton was a brilliant mind hobbled by his envy of others, and thus the perfect example of a knowledge hoarder.

Posted by: Stephen | Jun 12, 2006 9:53:37 AM

I think this This is the BEST post from your side which really hits home.
".. expertise is like love: not only is it unlimited, you destroy it only by not giving it away."

So true

Posted by: sunil Choudhary | Jun 12, 2006 9:53:51 AM

I found the essay. It's by Philip Slater, and is called "Why America is Polarized". A relevant quote:

"This is not a conflict between nations, or between religious traditions, or between left and right. The struggle is taking place WITHIN every nation, every political party, every religious tradition, every institution, every individual.

The old system I call Control Culture, because its underlying focus on order led to the creation of rigid mental and physical compartments. The new system I call Connecting Culture, because its guiding impulse is to bring down walls and permeate boundaries - to bring everything - ideas, people, images, cultures, species - into relation with everything else."

It's a great essay. I highly recommend it. http://www.philipslater.com/

Posted by: Gray Miller | Jun 12, 2006 10:47:40 AM

They taught us growing up people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison were heroes because they had an idea-a-minute and almost as many implementations which they shared to make the United States a leader in innovation.

Ironically the greatest information-sharing medium ever created lead to a new culture in which the goal is to protect just one idea just long enough to sell it for a fortune.

This practice is unproductive as this post points out and I think we are slowly learning from this mistake if not for idealistic reasons then as a matter of economic survival.

Posted by: Joel | Jun 12, 2006 12:22:06 PM

As one of the speakers at Webstock you quoted (I have a much better relationship with my iPod now!) who was giving away her 'secret sauce', I have a great example of how giving it away pays off.

I used to work for a usability organisation who used to train clients in all of the services they offered; usability testing, writing for the web, user centred design, the whole box and dice.

Competitors used to gasp and wonder how many clients they lost because they 'gave away' their skills.

They gained clients by the bucketload because the clients quickly realised that having some knowledge about usability was good, but it didn't make them experts. They knew WHEN to apply usability, but they didn't want to be the experts who knew exactly HOW to apply it. They wanted to be developers and project managers and whatever other roles they played.

It also created that 'trusted advisor' vibe, so as soon as they realised they needed to incorporate usability into a project, who was the first company they called?

For me, my knowledge is only useful when it's being shared.

Posted by: Theresa Cunnington | Jun 12, 2006 6:54:57 PM

A friend of mine once told me that thoughts were snowflakes, knowledge was a snowball, and sharing knowledge was the act of rolling that snowball down a steep hill so that it grows and becomes more then it started as. She also related that you couldn’t keep a snowball forever so you might as well make something out of it.

Posted by: Earl Moore | Jun 12, 2006 8:38:36 PM

Great post!!!!

Posted by: Todd Ruth | Jun 13, 2006 7:53:27 PM

This transition from closed to open systems is happening all around us, in many spheres of activity. Here's a perspective from a social/political standpoint:

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community

Posted by: Ian Gilman | Jun 13, 2006 10:58:54 PM

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