The Wisdom Of One

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Do you think that Social Media can fuel innovation?

It’s a topic that Francisco Dao tackled in The Washington Post on July 29th, 2011 in an op-ed piece titled, We share too much, and it’s stifling innovation: "But are the ideas of a select few really important when it comes to driving innovation? Contrary to the current zeitgeist, which dictates that the crowd is wise and innovation comes from listening to everyone’s feedback, I believe breakthrough innovations — the type that create new markets — are typically the result of a visionary (or visionaries) who ignored the fickle whims of public opinion. These visionaries need a sounding board of like-minded individuals who can grasp their ideas. They don’t need the feedback of the poorly-informed masses."

We need to be cautious about the wisdom of crowds when it comes to innovation.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is known to have said during the development of the iPad that, "It’s not the consumers’ job to figure out what they want." We tend to confuse our definitions and they become these unwieldy roots that grow beneath the discourse. Social Media helps people to mobilize, share, communicate and connect. I’m not sure where (or when) anyone ever said that the masses are any good at innovating? In fact, if you look at the results of any mass innovation experiment, you don’t see much. On the other hand, mass collaboration has been very successful. Would you say that the masses were responsible for the innovations that are Wikipedia or Linux? I would not. Those two ideas were brought forward by a small handful of individuals who had the innovation and the innovative idea to open it up and allow the masses to collaborate.

What comes from mass collaboration?

New ideas and new uses are the by-product of innovation (look no further than Chris Messina and how he stumbled into creating hashtags for Twitter). I wonder if we would have hashtags had Messina tweeted out, "maybe together we can think of a way to group conversations together on Twitter?" The result of that experiment would probably have failed. Much in the same way, if Guy Laliberte set up a focus group to figure out the next iteration of the circus, instead of having his own very innovative perspective that led to the creation of Cirque du Soleil. This doesn’t make the masses stupid and it doesn’t mean that we all live in groupthink because of Social Media. It also doesn’t mean that we share too much information and it doesn’t mean that all of this connectivity, sharing (and yes, oversharing) is having a stifling effect on innovation. In fact, quite the opposite.

How over-sharing drives innovation.

I would argue that innovation comes from both frustration and inspiration. We see something out in the world, we see a better way to do it that doesn’t exist, so we invent it. In a world where information and ideas are now everywhere (instead of locked up in institutions like museums and dance theaters or relegated to a monthly print publication), the general masses are more exposed than ever before to ideas, information and perspectives. How could that not drive innovation? Not a day goes by that I don’t see something in these digital spheres that acts as a catalyst for inspiration (and yes, I’m often frustrated with much that I experience as well). Has that led to anything truly innovative out of me? That’s for others to decide, but I’m sure that Mark Zuckerburg‘s inspiration for Facebook came out of some type of frustration from his online experience. I’m also quite certain that Zuckerburg never had a moment of thought towards the notion that the masses would help him in the ideation of his innovation. What he discovered, ultimately, is that the masses are an amazing mechanism for making ideas spread, providing feedback (both good and bad) and giving ideation over incremental improvements, but those aren’t necessarily innovations.

In the end, sharing is not going to stifle innovation. It’s going to inspire it. What do you think?


  1. Mitch,
    great post. I think as a first response we yell out “of course Social Media drives innovation!”… but then once you reflect on the vast array of users out there, and their specialties, you realize that in order to create innovation and synergy of creative thought something more focused needs to be organized. One has to be selective!
    I like how you have broken it down here for us with the examples from industry innovation leaders. And after reading I am more reflective of how I use social media. Some will say that all feedback is good or every comment should be considered, but that is like trying to satisfy all people all of the time. It’s better to just solve your own problems and someone out there might also like your solution (37 Signals Style!)
    Take care,

  2. great post Mitch,
    I think innovation can come from anywhere and it is not specific to any one medium or department but some of us are pioneers and some of us are settlers.

  3. The problem with trying to spur innovation through social media is that people naturally gravitate to like-minded groups and individuals. We’re attracted to messages we identify with and which validate our worldview. That being the case, you don’t usually see the diversity of perspective which is generally exists with truly innovative groups.

  4. Fueling innovation should be one of the pillars of any corporate social media strategy. Over the past couple of decades corporations and their marketing departments have embarked on a path that has taken them further away from their customers. They have outsourced call centres, spent tons of money on push marketing, pushed people to the web in an attempt to “service via lower cost channels”. The real beauty and opportunity with social media is that it can bring us closer to our customers, which is a critical factor in innovation. After all, change needs to be meaningful to many people (or customers) for us to label it an innovation.

  5. Market research and R&D is an implicit conversation between innovator and consumer. And and the innvotor has always dominated that conversation.
    Not that innovators don’t listen, but they always had more access to their own minds than to the mind of the consumer.
    Plato’s cave, essentially, with the shadows of consumer demand reflected imperfectly in the firelight.
    The evening out of that relationship does not, in my mind, take the innovator out of the exchange. Rather, it’s a healthy rebalancing.

  6. I’m not sure innovation depends on diversity of perspective all of the time. The Steve Jobs example is great at showing that sometimes one or a small group of individuals push an innovative idea through, regardless of the opinions of a diverse group. I agree that sharing has a positive effect on innovation, but the spark has to come from somebody bold enough to charge ahead with an idea.

  7. There has been the notion that customers don’t drive innovation for dome time. Innovative customer ideas are drowned by mass requests for incremental changes. So, it comes as no surprise that many believe that social media acts as an echo chamber for incrementalism.
    Yet, social media operates as a network. Organizations interact with a broader set of stakeholders. It’s not so much a crowd as it is customers, experts, academics, competitors and artists. It percolates ideas and provides avenues for deeper exploration. It also enables cutting across traditional specialist domains providing a much richer venue for discovery than pre-social media. In fact, it becomes more useful for innovation discovery that traditional media by orders of magnitude despite the “what’s trending” crowd noise. That’s because social media has become self-organizing. It’s easy to ignore the noise.

  8. No question that true innovation comes from the one or the few Mitch. Your reference to Zuckerburg is totally appropriate, he came up with the original idea. A casual friend, in a chance meeting, prompted the addition of the “relationship status” box. With the advent of social media we will have many more chance meetings than before. You do
    still need to have brain make up of a Steve Jobs but it easier to innovate than a decade ago.
    I would compare it to gaining expertise in playing poker. For years you had to travel down dark alleys or fly to Vegas to gain the experience necessary to become world class. Now there are hundreds if not thousands of kids not old enough to legally imbibe
    that have played millions of hands of poker online. And these kids are as good

  9. Part of it is being bold, but the bigger part is having the levity to have the initial ideas that lead to innovation. That, to me, is the hard and personal part that is a very solo existence.

  10. It’s an interesting perspective when you consider that even if a company was given a truly innovative idea from their consumers, would they have the ability to even identify it? Consider this: innovative ideas seems completely insane at first strike.

  11. Social media can actually help a person be more creative. In my case in the affiliate marketing business, I’m constantly finding new ways to tap into what people want social networks are one of the few excellent tools to use.

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