Get great ideas by giving the good ones away

Innovation requires infrastructure that supports collaboration

Innovation requires infrastructure that supports collaboration

We think we know how world-changing ideas are created.

Gutenberg invents the printing press, and the world suddenly has access to information that was available only to elites. A technology company pours money into designing a graphical user interface, and a new age of personal computing begins. Innovation seems to come either from the ingenuity of a genius or the investment of an organization.

That’s how we remember it, anyway. And those assumptions still guide how companies try―and mostly fail—to find big ideas. A recent study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found it takes more resources than ever before to create new ideas. Ideas that yield smaller returns than they used to.

Relying exclusively on creativity and resources is a narrow view of innovation. It misses the important context of the environments where groundbreaking concepts grow.

The ideas that have changed society—the printing press, the assembly line, the graphical user interface, even open source operating systems—weren’t developed in robust R&D departments or even conjured by a lone genius. They came from people with access to ideas outside their industries and connected different concepts to make something new:

  • Gutenberg’s printing press depended in part on technology developed by the Romans to press grapes.
  • The assembly line came to auto manufacturing 50 years after the meatpacking industry had standardized it.
  • The graphical user interface that galvanized the operating system wars was borrowed from a printing company’s software.
  • A software engineer rallied thousands of people to contribute to a new kernel based on the Unix operating system.

These eras of creativity didn’t stem from new ideas. They emerged when someone applied an existing idea in a new way. We believe that the same is true of the IT innovations that are changing industries today. AI, containerized applications and hybrid clouds all emerged because communities of creators worked on them in open environments. They are all products of collective invention.

Maybe new ideas aren’t really what we’re looking for. Artists don’t create new colors. Composers don’t create new notes. And, for the most part, inventors don’t create new technologies. They iterate on existing ones.

But you can’t improve an idea if you don’t know it exists.

The secret to innovation is working in the open

The key to innovation isn’t putting your best people in a room and safeguarding the things they create. It’s working in the open, sharing what you find, building new approaches on the work of others―and letting them build on yours. Mom was right. It’s better to share.

Unfortunately, sharing is not natural to most corporate cultures. Economic incentives may encourage R&D, but profit-driven intellectual property restricts the flow of ideas. In today’s disruptive business environment, revenue is moving from products to services. Your IP matters less than how well you serve people.

Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO of Red Hat—an open source enterprise technology leader—believes we work in an era of disruption, where planning as we know it is dead and no single person or company can answer today’s challenges. In an age where things change so fast that it’s hard to create and execute a five-year plan, established and emerging companies alike are looking for new ways to compete. Modern processes like DevOps, tools like cloud computing and methodologies like Agile rely―and thrive―on participation, collaboration and open technology.

This kind of innovation requires an infrastructure that supports collaboration—infrastructure like open hybrid clouds. Backed by thousands of developers from hundreds of communities, open hybrid clouds are the result of a development model that connects engineers to dozens of open source communities. They exchange ideas, and those ideas eventually attract others to them, creating a sort of “gravity” that pulls in more people, who turn it into something it couldn’t have been before.

Maybe the rise of open source and open hybrid clouds is just an example of how innovation has always worked. A small, promising idea passes from hand to hand and mind to mind, and eventually those new contributions create something the originator couldn’t have imagined.

And that the world can’t live without.