Monday, April 16, 2012

Process trumps ideas

This morning brought the discouraging news that Netflix has never used the winning algorithm in its $1 million contest, and has no plans to do so. Apparently the cost of implementing the solution exceeded the expected benefit, and in any case the company had moved on to other priorities by the time the contest was completed.

I've always been one of those starry-eyed optimists who see the potential of crowdsourcing and X-Prize-style innovation. It is, however, a little too easy to announce a contest and whip up enthusiasm around the idea of boundless innovation. If you don't also follow through on the back end and make sure that your internal processes are lined up to accept and implement the solutions that emerge from the contest, it might all come to nothing in the end.

I know that Netflix is probably more or less happy with their contest. It brought a lot of publicity to the company. Maybe not $1 million worth of publicity, but still -- the contest made Netflix look like a cool, forward-thinking company, and the polish that applied to the brand can only be positive. Even so, that sort of thing only goes so far. I've worked in an office where there were a series of internal innovation efforts in which employees were gathered together and invited to propose solutions to business challenges. At first it was very motivating. It felt like every one of us had the chance to make a difference. Once the ideas were collected, though, there was no mechanism in place to turn them into products; we captured our ideas on Post-Its and wrote them on whiteboards, but in retrospect that's as far as it went. The outcome was toxic: employee cynicism ramped up significantly, to the point where it was difficult to generate any enthusiasm around new efforts.

Process trumps ideas. It doesn't matter how many smart people you have contributing great ideas that solve problems for your company if you don't have processes in place to turn those ideas into action. This is the sort of thankless work that's absolutely essential if your high-profile innovation efforts are not to crash and burn.