Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Please Pass The Innovation

C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

He who eats alone chokes alone.” - Arabian Proverb

I’ve only seen a person choke once in my life. I’ve seen it on television and in the movies relatively often, but only once have I seen it in real life. On a business trip to Chicago a number of years ago while eating at Ditka’s restaurant I saw a man at a nearby table begin having trouble with his food. There were six or seven others at his table so he didn’t wait long until someone noticed his difficulty. A waiter ultimately performed a quick Heimlich. It was just like on tv. The piece of food sort of popped out of his mouth. I, who happened to be eating alone that evening, chewed my food a bit longer from that moment on before swallowing.

At the FEI 2010 Conference a few months back, I remember Charles Warren, Manager of Mobile User Experience at Google (in the midst of a broader discussion concerning Google’s design innovation process) mentioning briefly the concept of “dogfooding”. Dogfooding simply refers to the practice of a company using the products it makes. Companies all over the world do this. Microsoft uses Microsoft software. Beverage machines at Coca-Cola are stocked with Coke products. Employees at Proctor & Gamble wipe themselves with Charmin. And so on.

What made Mr. Warren’s comment about dogfooding slightly different was that within Google dogfooding takes place with products, concepts, and ideas that have yet to see the retail light of day. Employees at the company don’t simply use existing products, but rather try each other’s stuff out while in development.

Arguably every company does this to some extent. It’s called “testing”. What seemed to make the Google innovation process slightly different in this regard was the deliberate and ongoing nature of the practice throughout the innovation process. Testing is a discrete event. Dogfooding is continuous. Perhaps I’m reading too much into what Mr. Warren said or perhaps I misunderstood his comments, but it almost seemed as though internal dogfooding was a requirement of the innovation process. It wasn’t simply about casual conversation or limited, isolated testing, but rather a deliberate practice to continually gather feedback on products at various points in development.

Ideas can be funny things. And so too can the people that come up with them. Sometimes we hoard ideas. Sometimes we want to protect ideas. And in the process, sometimes we don’t share ideas as readily as we perhaps should. But innovation is a collaborative, interactive endeavor. It requires that we share ideas. Otherwise we’ll choke on them.

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