Whoa! Reining in the faster horses

Thanks to Hugh, Chris, Kathy and with a lot of help from Tim O’Reilly, my Faster Horses post seems to have engendered a number of interesting conversations, conversations I’ve learnt from. Snowballs, in Doc Searls and George Lakoff parlance, starting with a kernel somewhere, growing in size and gathering pace, finally landing up somewhere completely different from the origin.

The arguments I’ve seen have been truly fascinating; here’s my summary and response for now:

1. Customers should have a spectrum of choice. Customers can choose to let someone else choose for them, an outsourcing of choice, sometimes even an abdication of choice. But choice nevertheless. Similarly, customers can choose to have their choice restricted. But it’s still choice. As long as the customer is in control, the spectrum of choice can and should be vast. Reasons to restrict or outsource or abdicate choice tend to be about respect for human time: simplicity, convenience, ease of use. As one of the commenters said, some people really care about being able to choose their toothpaste; many would prefer choice in more profound decisions. Our challenge is to provide that spectrum of choice.

2. Customers should be able to look under the hood if they want to. Some customers want it all done for them. Some customers want to be able to do everything. Most customers are in between. We need to ensure that customers can choose their level of empowerment. They should be able to look under the hood if they want to; there should be tools for them to modify things should they want to. But only if they want to. Our challenge is to provide that spectrum of tools our customers want, safely and reliably.

3. It’s not just about what choices are offered, it’s about how those choices are offered. Customers need to be informed about their choices. At one extreme it’s about feature and price comparison of commodity. At the other extreme it’s about understanding the art of the possible. When we offer choice, we need to use modern tools to augment the information. Recommendations from their social network. Ratings from a wider population. Tags and folksonomies. Prediction markets. Access to collective and social intelligence about the products and services in general.

4. There is no law today that says the customer cannot be a disruptive innovator, a wild-eyed visionary. This is probably what I really wanted to say in my first post, and didn’t say well enough. Customers can be many things if they are allowed to. If they are given the voice, the choice and the appropriate tools. I am personally always sceptical about an artificial separation between the customer and the innovator. In an opensource world, quite often I don’t know the difference. I can cope with some distinction between the customer and the inventor, but even that makes me uncomfortable. When distinctions are drawn between customers and innovators, I am way way uncomfortable. There is no innovation without adoption. Customers can and do innovate; some customers even invent. We have to stop this holy-of-holies approach separating innovators and inventors from customers, particularly in the context of services.

Really that’s my main point. In the past it was difficult for the customer to have access to the right tools, the right environment, the right information and the right feedback loops to be a true innovator. Nowadays that no longer holds true. So we need to give our customers more choice and more voice, make more of them active innovators.

When we do this, we need to understand a few other things. One, the choices one customer outsources may not be the choices the next customer outsources. Different things matter to different people. Two, restricting choice on the grounds of risk-averse nanny-state safety in an increasingly litigious world is a Bad Thing. Human beings learn by taking risk, and we must never forget that.

I’ve always believed in the phrase “Talent is being able to build things that others can’t build. Genius is being able to build things that others can’t see.”

I’ve always believed in the value of people who can build things that others can’t see. What frustrates me is the tendency amongst so many of us to believe that customers can’t be geniuses.

Just ask them. Just ask the wild-eyed visionaries amongst them. At least try to ask them.They can and do exist, and it’s time we enfranchised them, gave them voice.

Whether it was Ford or the Wright Brothers or Edison, inventions and innovations often came as a result of considerable collaboration and teamwork; of course they were wild eyed visionaries, but, despite the wild eyes, there was a lot of collaboration, a lot of iterating, a lot of persistence, a lot of perseverance. Much of the literature I’ve read suggests that solo invention was very very rare and often misrepresented. That collaborators were often left out of the credits, that history has painted a false picture about the sheer process of invention and innovation.

We have an opportunity to bring customers into the innovation and invention processes. To really bring them in rather than just pretend to. That’s what co-creation is about.

And by the way, we don’t have to do anything about this. It’s happening. As “producers” we have choices as well. Be part of the new process. Or stop being.

6 thoughts on “Whoa! Reining in the faster horses”

  1. Interesting times.

    Just like Newtonian theories were challenged and quantum theories formulated in the early 1900s. The fundamental laws governing interaction between biz stakeholders is getting redefined now.

    Just like quantum physics where observer and the observed mixup creates interesting phenomenon. The inclusion of the customer-adopter-co-creator and wild-eyed visionary mish-mash into the equation will result in interesting phenomenon.

    Interesting stuff like micro-equity-share-warrant( a la employee stock option) will come with the cereal carton! [Many of the shares are trading at minute fraction of their highs now, I’m not talking about that now.]

    If millioners are made out of such equity, we can take it as evidence of validation of the New Age.

  2. Amazing article. I am very enthused about open innovation, and am pleased to see the term co-creation gaining more prevalence over previously clumsy and incorrectly focused terms like ‘ideation’.

    The idea that we create things for customers, without the involvement of the customer is certainly something that many people take for granted, and working with, rather than for, customers is a way to better things.

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