I’m intrigued by crowdsourcing, the idea that you can send a complex task to an “undefined public” and get your work done quickly and efficiently. For instance, I enjoy teaching but I don’t like grading papers. So I’m thinking about crowdsourcing the task through a service like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. In theory, I could send my grading guidelines and student papers to the “undefined public” that contracts with the Mechanical Turk, have them graded and returned in a few days all for a few bucks. I’ll let you know how it goes.
I’m also on the board of Beanstalk, a charitable organization that supports charitable organizations in Colorado. We have lots of grassroots leaders here who do amazing things in their local communities — like urban agriculture, food justice, childhood education, etc. — but don’t know much about the arts of fundraising or managing a non-profit. They’re dynamic individuals leading small-scale projects. They don’t have a national organization behind them. We back them up in multiple ways, including a crowdfunding website. In the past 18 months, the site has raised well over $300,000. (Check it out and give some money to your favorite projects).
Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are important in my own daily activities. I’m a fan. I’m also a fan of Apple Computer and have been for almost 30 years. In all that time, Apple has never once asked me my opinion about their products. When Steve Jobs was asked how much market research went into the iPhone, he famously replied, “None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”
So how does Apple stay ahead of the innovation curve and build products that we didn’t know we wanted? There are any number of accounts of how Apple works. (See for instance, Inside Apple or Insanely Simple or The Apple Experience). For today’s post, however, I’m going to stick to Steven Johnson’s account as found in Where Good Ideas Come From.
Johnson’s analysis revolves around the “coffeehouse” concept of innovation — very similar to the mashup concept that I’ve discussed on this website from time to time. In a coffeehouse, people and ideas connect, disconnect, and re-connect in “liquid networks.” Random connections supply ideas that then get mashed up — creating new ideas, concepts, and categories. Apple, on the other hand, has “adopted a fortress mentality toward the outside world.” As Johnson notes, “You won’t see Steve Jobs or Jonathan Ive crowdsourcing development of the next-generation iPhone.”
So how does Apple do it? Johnson writes that Apple’s “internal development process is explicitly structured to facilitate clash and connection between different perspectives. … [the] development cycle looks more like a coffeehouse than an assembly line.” Johnson describes most development cycles as linear processes where functionality is removed at each step. The designers come up with great ideas. The engineers who receive those ideas can deliver some of the functionality but not all of it. Manufacturing planners who receive the product plans can produce some of what’s wanted but not all of it. And so on in a declining circle.
Johnson suggests that Apple’s concurrent planning is “messier and more chaotic” but ensures that good ideas don’t get hollowed out. Instead, all the groups involved in creating products, “… meet continuously through the product-development cycle, brainstorming, trading ideas and solutions… and generally keeping the conversation open to a diverse group of perspectives.”
It’s messy but it’s creative. And, it’s a form of crowdsourcing. Rather than crowdsourcing outside the company, Apple does it inside the company. It sounds insane but it delivers insanely great products.