Vienna. 1926 and Slawa Duldig was looking forward to a pleasant Sunday walk in the gardens of the Kunst Historisches Museum, a favourite haunt. Except that the prospect on this May morning with its ominous looking clouds was not so inviting – and so to prepare for the likely showers she took a heavy umbrella with her. She captured her frustration in her notebook  - ‘Why on earth must I carry this utterly clumsy thing? They should invent a small foldable umbrella that could be easily put in a handbag’. A great idea – but ‘they’ hadn’t yet done it and so Slawa decided to remedy the situation.

She was a sculptress, a successful artist used to working with ideas and giving them form.  She played around with the notion, sketched some designs and realised that to fit in her bag the umbrella would not only have to be small, it would need a folding mechanism.  Where else had she seen something like that?  A flash of insight and she was off peering excitedly into shop windows and talking to the owners of businesses specialising in window blinds.  And she’d need some kind of frame, lightweight, to give shape – so another shopping expedition to stores specialising in lampshades.

Gradually, just like one of her sculptures, the prototypes took physical form and her experiments continued. Having tested them out she finally decided to patent her idea – by now called the ‘Flirt’ - and lodged it in the Austrian Patent Office on September 19th, 1929.  The world’s first folding umbrella was born and these days around 500 million of its descendants are sold each year.

Sometimes it’s not about starting from scratch but about adapting something already there. In 1940 Joe Stevenson and many others like him was carrying a lot of responsibility on his twenty-one year old shoulders. One of a small number of fighter pilots he was flying every day trying to defend the skies over Kent and Sussex from waves of attacks. His plane was the Supermarine Spitfire, the sleek aerodynamically fast offspring of Reginald Mitchell’s earlier work designing high performance seaplanes to win the Schneider Trophy. Mitchell’s efforts had helped shape a beautiful flying machine. Except - as Joe nearly discovered to his cost – it had a couple of flaws which Mitchell hadn't fully covered in his design. Like being able to see behind you without having to turn your head. Not a problem if you are joy-riding the skies but pretty serious if you are in a dogfight and need to know fast when someone is on your tail.

Joe has a lot in common with Slawa even if the worlds of umbrellas and fighter pilots seem far apart. First of all he’s got a high incentive to innovate – he wants a solution to his problem. And he’s not afraid to experiment, to improvise, try out something to see if it works. He thinks about his beloved MG sports car and the way his rear view mirror works and decides to try and fit something similar inside his cockpit. It takes a few goes, some fiddling attempts to get it in the right place and to stay there, and he enlists the help of one of the aircraft fitters to develop an improvised bracket. It's not long after that that the other pilots in his squadron have fitted their own – and soon after that the Air Ministry issues a new specification requiring the mirrors as a standard in new planes and arranging for modifications to existing ones.

These aren't isolated cases – they're the stuff of everyday innovation. We’re all of us improvisers, improving and modifying things, tweaking and adapting to suit our needs. And sometimes we get frustrated enough to come up with a whole new solution. Consider: 

  • Reed Hastings – angry at being charged yet again late fees for his video rental from Blockbuster. (‘why not make it easier and simpler?’)
  • Marian Donavan, hands red raw from washing out nappies (‘why can’t we make these disposable?’)
  • Owen Maclaren seeing his daughter fumbling to try and assemble her pushchair whilst holding babies, handbag, assorted toys and other child paraphernalia (‘why can't I make something foldable like the retractable undercarriage I designed for the Spitfire?’)

These ‘pain points’ gave birth to Netflix, disposable nappies and foldable baby buggies and there are thousands of other examples like them. They offer some important innovation lessons – in particular reminding us of one of the ‘open innovation’ mantras which we hear often. As Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems famously said, even the largest organization has to recognise that ‘not all the smart guys work or you’. Go and look outside, open up your search. Research on user innovation has taught us that there are plenty of smart men and women out there who have ideas worth looking at. Frustration leads to innovation – and so ‘crowdsourcing’ – seeking out these ideas from a wide population – has much more to offer than just being a fashionable add-on to the marketing department.

Tapping into user innovation offers some key advantages:

  • Diversity and variety – no organization can afford to look at every possible product or service concept. But users not only explore, they target precisely the pain points, the frustrations. Find the ones that others also worry about – and you may have uncovered a new market, not just a product idea.
  • Patient experimentation – as we saw in the examples and in countless others, users have the incentive to innovate and are not afraid to try things out. And they follow the motto ‘if at first you don't succeed…’; famously James Dyson went through 5,000 odd prototypes before solving his problem with vacuum cleaning. Thomas Edison looked at 10,000 different materials before he found the right one for the filaments in his light bulb.
  • Community-building. Joe Stevenson wasn't the only pilot with a problem – across the country similar experiments and modifications were being made and the ideas shared. Linus Torvalds wasn’t the only programmer annoyed by the limitations of operating systems and interested in what a new version of UNIX might offer – pretty soon he gathered a community around him of similarly minded experimentalists, sharing code and ideas. The Linux community is typical of communities of practice, people with shared interests in improving, improvising, tinkering, motivated by being part of the group as much as by the benefits they share. These days we are beginning to realise how much knowledge is held and shared by users so it makes sense to try and tap into it.
  • Accelerated diffusion. One of the problems in innovation is the better mousetrap that no-one wants. People are conservative when it comes to new things – and one of the main reasons why they don't adopt is when something new doesn't fit with their world. Compatibility is critical – and what better way to ensure that something will fit than to use a design which originated from a bunch of users themselves? People trust new ideas which originate from others like them – a concept Everett Rogers (who spent a lifetime studying innovation adoption) called ‘homophily. ‘People like us’ understand our world and design things which fit into it – so there is a rich opportunity for smart organizations to watch and learn from these ideas. The pickup truck was not an invention from the drawing boards of designers working for Ford or General Motors in Detroit.  It was developed and redeveloped by farmers seeing each other’s experiments towards adapting cars for work on the farm.

This isn’t just a story of products and services – the same pattern works for processes as well.  Who better to identify improvements and tweaks to make something work better than someone who is close to it, works with it every day? Not for nothing is one of the major planks in the road to world-class productivity which the 'Toyota Way’ has laid down a thing called Genchi Genbutsu.  It basically means ‘go to the real place’ where the knowledge can be found, go to the source. Get close to where something is actually being done and observe. Who better to do this than the operators themselves? User innovation once again.

So there’s plenty of reasons for looking at user innovation – but some key questions remain around how to find and mobilise it. For example:

  • Crowdsourcing is powerful but only if it is a serious attempt to widen the funnel at the front end of innovation and to listen to and explore novel ideas. Bolted on simply as a cosmetic addition to marketing is unlikely to pick up good ideas.
  • Build communities and work with them. Feed them with ideas, resources, challenges. (And remember these groups are pretty good at policing so ‘free-riding’ is soon damped out. The key principle here is being prepared to ‘give to get’).
  • Create space for interaction and ideas, find ways to enable prototyping. Increasingly organizations are setting up or joining with maker spaces, fab-labs and other physical zones (and their online equivalents) as a way of creating meeting points around which innovation can happen.
  • Recognise it's a partnership – ‘co-creation’ is the key. Research repeatedly shows the power of user innovation – but it also has limitations of its own. In particular what motivates user innovators is solving their own problem – if it happens to help you as well that’s a nice bonus but not essential. User innovators aren't interested in moving to scale – and they aren't experienced in doing so. So there’s a real opportunity for complementarity – users bringing ideas and community and insights for momentum and organizations bringing resources, experience to enable scale.

The table below gives some examples of where and how this complementarity plays out:

What users bring to the party…

What established organizations bring….

Rich variety of ideas

Experience and expertise at scaling

Deep understanding of user context – sticky information, not available through market research

Design for scale – manufacturing, marketing, distribution, etc.

Articulation of user needs in context

‘Productising’, making it possible to repeat the trick and to do so at scale

Amplified experimentation and high tolerance of failure – a ‘learning laboratory’

Quality processes and discipline to codify the lessons learned and apply them at scale

Communities of practice with extensive knowledge sharing

Convening and supporting spaces and resources to support such exploration


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