Friday, February 24, 2006

Conferences and Innovation

I just signed up for the O'Reilly Emerging Technology event in San Diego next month -

I've also written a paper for a workshop in the IEEE Joint Conference on E-Commerce Technology (CEC'06) and Enterprise Computing, E-Commerce and E-Services (EEE'06) - but the conference name is so long that I can't remember it very well in conversation. This conference also includes the 2nd International Workshop on Business Service Networks (BSN '06) and the 2nd International Workshop on Service oriented Solutions for Cooperative Organizations (SoS4CO '06). Its all sounds very interesting, its in June in San Francisco, and needs a snappier name...

Last December I attended the Fortune Innovation Forum in New York. It was very nicely put together and in effect it validated the approach we were already taking. It seems that most of the attendees were trying to work towards a culture, process and tools for fostering innovation that seemed similar to our own setup. eBay and PayPal were used as examples several times.

We used a few simple techniques last year to kickstart our own innovation program. One method I borrowed from other events is the "Poster Lunch". Get a room near the company cafe, provide flip chart sized pads and pens, email everyone to tell them about it and put up signs in the Cafe to invite them in on the day. Anyone can put anything they like on a poster, stick it up and collect comments on it in person. One thing we found was that there were several posters suggesting eBay site features that already existed or were in development. One suggestion in particular was getting lots of support and comments until someone wrote on it "LTS thursday!", meaning it would be Live To Site and be launched two days later. We also gave attendees voting stickers so that they could indicate their favourite posters.

To drill down on the best ideas we also setup a regular open-to-all meeting where we could discuss the concepts and route them to the appropriate expert or business owner. The most far-sighted ideas get routed to become candidates for research labs projects, and the people who had the ideas get to develop them further.

To support the collection of ideas, we created a Wiki. This is nice because it is free format, and supports comments and discussion, with very low initial barrier to entering an idea. The problems came when there were several hundred ideas in the Wiki, it became hard to maintain. A more specialized pre-concept tool that feeds into our standard development process is a better solution for incremental innovations, and the Wiki works better for more radical ideas.

To really get a dose of innovative ideas, last year I attended a seminar on Complex Adaptive Systems by the Santa Fe Institute. It was a real eye-opener, they are pushing the boundaries of multi-disciplinary research, e.g. forming teams with Physicists, Biologists and Economists to derive the rules of scaling and organization of living things, from the smallest mammal to the largest city. Since eBay, PayPal and Skype are social networks, (their value comes from connections within their communities) they behave in some ways like cities, and follow similar kinds of scaling rules.


  1. Your "Poster Lunch" technique is expanded upon by Open Space Technology. I comment on my own experiences with Open Space here.