Problem-finding on the Path from Invention to Adoption

The intersection of two key dimensions of how we think offers an interesting insight into the path from new idea to successful innovation. Alan Kay discusses them in a talk he gave last year at Demo 2014 called “The Future Doesn’t Have to Be Incremental.” It’s an excellent use of your time, if you’re prepared to think about what Alan is saying. Alan can be a deep and a dense thinker; he’s the kind of teacher where it might take days or weeks before the argument he is making hits you with its full force. This is our problem as the student; not Alan’s as teacher. Consider yourself warned as well as encouraged. The payoff is worth the effort.

If you want to skip to the part of the video I want to examine today, go to the 18-minute mark. The first dimension he addresses is how we respond to new ideas or tools when they appear. Most of us (95% per Alan) respond to a new idea or tool in an instrumental way; we evaluate the idea in terms of how it might advance our current agenda. Our default response is WIIFM—what’s in it for me? One in twenty of us, however, asks a more generative question—should I revise my agenda based on this new idea? This difference in attitude is essential to invention.

Another way to characterize this is whether someone reacts to a new idea in a closed or an open way. A closed response to a new idea treats the idea in terms of how it advances an existing agenda or goal, while an open response maps to Kay’s notion of reacting to a new idea in terms of how it might modify, reshape, or obsolete a current agenda. While WIIFM may be the question in either case, the shift in stance is important.

The second dimension Alan explores is that of extraversion/introversion. I find it more helpful to think of this dimension as your compass; is it social or personal? Do you look to the group for your primary source of direction or do you look inwardly. Again, more than 80% of us take our cues from the group. We are, after all, social animals.

Taken together, we get the following diagram, which I’ve scaled to reflect the general 80/20 proportions at work:


These dimensions aren’t completely orthogonal, but they do set up an interesting set of questions about invention and innovation. Work gets done by the grand majority of people who are tuned into the social matrix and see new ideas in terms of how they can advance existing agendas. At the opposite end of the diagonal, new ideas are generated by the few percent who don’t pay much attention to the social matrix and are on the prowl for truly new ideas.

The challenge is that you need both groups to collaborate to generate big innovations. This collaboration is hard because the mindsets are so different from one another. The greater burden, I suspect, lies with the inventors (broadly writ). They are the ones who must walk their thinking back from what might be to what can be done now and set a path forward that avoids the temptations to settle for the incremental.

This is a leadership task. And not simply a visionary exercise in painting the future in an attractive and compelling way. It depends on some ability to anticipate key forks in the path and to recognize the risks of alluring junctions that lead to the incremental rather than the transformative. Essentially the leadership task here is one of problem-finding and problem-framing; it is about directing the problem-solving capacities of the organization toward a future that is not simply a straight line projection of the present.

Connected Courses Course – An Experiment in Collaboration – #CCourses

I’m carving out time to participate in what I see as a worthy experiment in collaboration. It’s been organized by some of the most interesting people working on online learning and seems to be attracting an equally interesting collection of people interesting in participating.

Here’s what they have to say:

We invite you to participate in a free open online learning experience designed to get you ready to teach open, connected courses no matter what kind of institution you’re working in. We’ll explore how openness and collaboration can improve your practice and help you develop new, open approaches.

You can mix and match — take one unit or take them all, and go at your own pace. You’ll be joined by other participants from around the world who are looking to:

  • get hands-on with the tools of openness;
  • create open educational resources, curriculum and teaching activities and get feedback from a community of your peers; and
  • connect with and learn alongside other faculty, educators and technologists.

Sign up and receive updates from the organizers. Everyone is welcome, and no experience is required. We will all learn together in this free and fun opportunity to start planning your own connected course. The instructors, award-winning university professors from around the globe, are the innovative educators behind successful connected courses such as FemTechNetds106phonar, and the National Writing Project CLMOOC.

An orientation starts Sept. 2 and the first unit starts Sept. 15, 2014 and you can sign up and find more details about the topics we’ll be exploring at

[Connected Courses Sign Up]

This is being billed as “a collaborative community of faculty in higher education developing networked, open courses that embody the principles of connected learning and the values of the open web.” I think it is something richer than that.

Paying attention is the least that you should do if you are interested in issues of collaboration, learning, and new organizational forms. Jumping into the pool with the rest of the crowd is a better idea.

Interested in being part of a unique problem solving team?

For the past several years we’ve been working to create the world’s largest high-performance team for problem-solving. This two-minute video captures the essence of what we are trying to accomplish:

We’ve been actively recruiting for the next stage in our development, which will be a beta test that will run over the next six months. We expect the time commitment for this phase will be 2-3 hours per week. If you think this is something you’d be interested in, drop us a line at and we’ll be in touch.

Collaborating Minds

Some details about what my partner in collaboration, David Friedman, and I have been up to lately.

Improved logo with background and tagline
For the past few months, my colleague Jim McGee and I have been hard at work on a project we’ve named Collaborating Minds. It will be an online problem-solving community — with a unique membership recruiting strategy. The goal is to create a resource that will be able to assist organizations with hard problems by providing rich insights and multiple perspectives. It’s a marriage of some of the ideas of crowdsourcing with the principles that make for high performance teams. It’s an example of getting more people to work together better, a topic I wrote about a while back.

Collaborating Minds’ main assets will be:

  1. Its network of 500-700 part-time participants
  2. Its approach to community building and structured problem solving,and
  3. Its software platform that supports and enables the community building and structured problem-solving. 

The people will be recruited and selected based on their interest and ability to work together in the community in just the way the software platform allows. They will include people from a very diverse set of backgrounds. We’ll have scientists of various stripes, engineers of various types, humanists, consultants, experts in all kinds of fields. So in that respect it will be like crowdsourcing.

The community and the problem-solving will be actively managed, and the members will be expected to get to know at least some of the other community members outside the context of the specific problems we are working on. Community members will help each other on their own issues and challenges, and can use the problem-solving tools provided to do so if they like.

The software platform includes a social network of a particular kind, and a structured problem-solving process and spaces for the problem-solving to occur. The problem-solving method will combine structured asynchronous elements and structured synchronous elements (online meetings). We also will have an alternative free-form option for members to use when the structure isn’t right for the problem at hand.

There’s a lot more info available now at the Collaborating Minds site. We are almost finished with the alpha version of the software platform and are starting to talk with people about recruiting and membership. We have a lot of unanswered questions (e.g., precise target markets, compensation, and governance) and probably some wrong answers to others. One of the best things about this idea though, is that we can aim our group at ourselves; if this sort of group can generate insightful and powerful solutions to hard problems (which I believe it can) then it help us solve the issues that remain ahead.

Collaborating Minds
David Friedman
Fri, 24 Jun 2011 19:07:11 GMT