Open and user innovation: Understanding humans

Last month, I joined over a hundred researchers and practitioners for a fascinating and intellectually nourishing conference on open and user innovation (Brighton, UK). And if I could turn back the clock, I would literally drag all of us there.

My motivation to go there is pretty clear (I’m lying, I just wanted to meet Prof. Eric von Hippel). But why would I drag you? Well, even if you couldn’t be further from being interested in open or user innovation, the pool of research that was discussed in Brighton applies to all of our work. All. Literally.

In this blog post, I am sharing three takeaways that in my opinion have a chance to be relevant for all development workers.

1. Even an innovation process has its bottlenecks

Imagine a cheap DYI upgrade to your heating system that could help you save considerable sums of money. Would you introduce it in your own house? Would you share it with your neighbours? Do you think they would also invest the 2 Euro it costs in it?

Yes, yes and yes? Sorry… It’s actually: no, no, and no.

All processes (or at least vast majority of them) have their bottlenecks. For (user) innovation the bottleneck (one of many?) is dissemination. Finding user innovators is one thing. Diffusing the innovation they created – that’s a whole new chapter.

Key to getting through the bottleneck is understanding what causes it in the first place (is it just a typical case of innovation resistance: strong habit + high risk perception?). And that can be a major struggle. Once, however, we get to understand what prevents people from switching to the new solution, we can begin dismantling the obstacles.

As Prof. Johann Fuller’s research shows, disadvantages tend to have stronger impact on user’s willingness to innovate rather than advantages that innovation brings. In other words, it seems to be more effective to remove bottlenecks rather than keep adding incentives (which also goes pretty much in line with the teachings of behavioural science).

2. The nature of incentives

So removing bottleneck is one thing, but once we’re done with that, how do we go about incentivising people to join our innovation efforts?

Challenge prizes (crowdsourcing solutions to a given problem) seem to have become the flavour of the month. Many companies andorganizations are looking at them as one of the most effective ways to make the most out of open innovation. We have tested it too and we’re very excited to see the final result!

There is however one important thing to remember: “one of the most effective ways” equals not “a silver bullet.” User’s discretion is advised. Here is why…

Have you ever heard about the Marshmallow challenge?

“Its goal was simple: in eighteen minutes, teams of four must build the tallest freestanding structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow has to be on top.”

What came out of studying how people collaborate during this challenge (apart from the fact that we would be best off staying kindergarteners our whole lives), is among other things an important lesson about the nature of incentives. Namely: offering (monetary) rewards for people’s engagement may very well discourage them from participating at all.

This has also been showcased during a lead user workshop done by Prof. Christopher Lettl

 During the research, lead users were divided into three groups:

  1. control group: lead users signed a disclosure form, which transferred IP rights for all solutions created during the workshop to the company.

  2. group 2: monetary prize was offered for the winning solution

  3. group 3: lead users were informed that they will be further involved in the development of the winning solution (based on their input)

The assumption was that providing some sort of reward to lead users will increase their sense of being treated in a fair manner and thus increase their engagement. Surprisingly, the opposite turned out to be true. Rewards made people think (they got suspicious): is this really trustful? is this realistic? As a result, their engagement in the process decreased.

How is that for an assumption you’d arrive at using rationality?

Speaking of which…

3. Both Mill and Smith are dead. Humans are not rational.

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures acting on the prompts from our reason more than anything else… (Are you already giggling thinking “oh I am soooooo rational?” Right…) Consequently, we tend to think of users, consumers, beneficiaries as rational, always willing to choose the option that makes more sense.

The lead user model assumes certain traits to be shared by all lead users; all these traits are closely linked with the notion of rationality. Prof. Nikolaus Franke decided to give them another look and here’s roughly what he argued:

  1. Users experience strong and unmet needs. Do users really know what they want? Users may have low preference insight on the onset, but once they start self-designing, they quickly learn what they want.

  2. Users innovate for the user experience benefit. There are many additional motives (that should be taken into account) behind user innovation: fun (!), hedonistic motives, social motives, etc.

  3. The process of innovating is strongly associated by the users with costs. Psychological effect of accomplishment offsets costs (example: once you reach the summit, climbing up the mountain is no longer considered by you just as a cost).

  4. Users will share their innovations with others freely. The sense of fairness is very important – they might not reveal their innovation if they have a sense that they are being abused; example: lead users tend to feel this way if they are not involved in the selection [prizes] or modification [product development] process.

Implications for development workers are multifold, so let me just reiterate the more general one: humans are not rational creatures (though some struggle to be), therefore it is important for us not to build our projects on the assumption that what we’re offering simply makes more sense and as such will be gladly accepted by everyone.

Where does it all leave us?

First, we should make sure we’ve identified and removed bottlenecks to introducing our solution.

Second, we should provide incentives adequate to the situation and the nature of the group we are targeting.

Third, we should not just assume rationality (on any level).

Does this make sense?



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