Monday, August 25, 2008

Going beyond idea contest #3: Building innovation sandboxes

Sandbox: My study room (cum bedroom) faces a sandpit. It is a joy to watch playful kids engrossed in the sand creating forts & castles of different kind each day. The rigid walls of the sandpit make their game a controlled one. They have a minimal and yet useful tools with them. And more importantly they have flowing sand which they mould whichever way their imagination takes them. Wonder why can’t we build such sandboxes in our organizations?

Metaphor of “sandbox”: I am certainly not the first one to link innovation approach to sandbox creation. C. K. Prahalad introduced an approach called “Innovation sandbox” in an article published in Strategy+Business. This approach is called an innovation “sandbox” because it involves fairly complex, free-form exploration and even playful experimentation (the sand, with its flowing, shifting boundaries) within fixed specified constraints (the walls, straight and rigid, that box in the sand).

What is an innovation platform? Taking the sandbox metaphor, I feel that innovation platform contains following 4 elements:

  1. A set of constraints (corresponding to the walls of the sandbox)
  2. A lab for experimentation (corresponding to the sand)
  3. A set of tools (corresponding to the tools in the sandbox)
  4. A critical mass of passionate people (kids playing in the sandbox)

An example: Let’s take a concrete example. RIA (Rich Internet Application) is a hot technology. Let’s say we would like to develop an innovation platform around it. Hence, our constraint #1 is: RIA. Another important constraint I will fix by asking the question: What market trend do we want this platform to exploit? The answer may be social networking or e-commerce (or something else). This would be constraint#2. Then I would ask the question: What are we really good at which we want to leverage? Answer may be “testing” or “system integration” or “end to end development”. I would fix the answer as constraint#3.

Next we need to answer the question: How can we build a prototyping lab for this platform? Is there an open source platform already available? And what kind of tools do we need?

Defining criteria: You may say, all this is fine, where are the people? And you are right. We got it all wrong. We first need to ask the question, what do (at least a few) people in my organization excited about? As a KM head in a large IT organization told me today, you need at least 6-7 passionate folks to keep a platform going.

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