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Innovation: Beware the cool idea

September 2, 2009

I’m reading What Would Google Do by Jeff Jarvis. The chapter on New Imperatives focuses on encouraging, enabling, and protecting innovation. Jarvis attended a seminar on innovation at the World Economic Forum in 2008. In that seminar, a large group sat in a circle. Each participant shared an idea with their neighbor, creating a sort of idea mashup (See WWGD page113). WWGD

Then a scientist stood up and stopped the madness, stating that scientists didn’t develop innovation by sitting around trying to think of a cool idea. He explained that they started with a problem and tried to find a solution. To quote, “Beware the cool idea.”

The same is true in the world of APIs. In my consulting gigs I always ask companies why they are creating an API. Do you want innovation? Are you improving integration for partners? Or do you want to reduce the costs of doing business on internal projects? Are you trying to be transparent, or are you opening up because everyone else is doing it?

Frequently companies will suggest they are doing it to drive innovation. That is a good start. Better yet, ask yourself, “What is the problem we want solved?“

Somewhere in the secret laws of how to launch an API and attract developers, the word has spread that you must “do a contest” and you will get cool mashups – and recruit lots of developers. The Programmable Web contest page highlights a wide range of contests – all in the attempt to woo developers to help them innovate. One of my current projects is working with Symbian the mobile platform player and the issues are the same in the mobile space….case in point this long list of contests for mobile apps – we will pay you thousands of dollars for building a really cool mobile….we don’t know what we want it to do, it just needs to be cool.

OK, that can work. Sometimes. But if you create an API and expect millions to flock to it and create something innovative, think again. They will create something that solves a problem for them; or for you, if you ask.
So who is doing it right? Best Buy. The Best Buy Remix Challenge asks the developer community to help them solve business problems…help us sell more laptop accessories…They created a contest that was focused on developers solving a problem with their API.

Think back to the first mashup we know about – Paul Rademacher’s Housing Maps. Paul used Google Maps and Craigslist to create a visual housing search page. Why? So he could better understand the availability of apartments in an unfamiliar city.

Random innovation won’t happen. When you launch your mobile app store, your API or even a Data Store (Guardian or Wolfram), know that innovation will happen out of necessity or interest – not randomness. If you intend to launch an API and run a contest, ask the community to help you solve a problem that is worth the time and effort you are putting into the contest.

Google says, “Make innovation your business.” I say, “Make innovation about your business!”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2009 5:53 pm

    Good post. I’d go a step further, though. APIs are no longer about getting hordes of developers to use use them (although that never hurts). The decision to open an API shouldn’t be based on whether armies of developers will flock to it. Rather, the decision to open an API should be part of a larger strategy about how an organization approaches sales, distribution, content, etc.

    • Laura Merling permalink*
      September 2, 2009 6:15 pm

      Mike – absolutely agree. The decision to launch an API is a strategic business decision. The measures of success are based on real business goal which include simplifying integration with partners (ie: don’t send that giant batch file), creating new distribution channels (our mobile strategy is key to our future), or even about defining a new offering/partnership (Netflix intergration w/ XBox)!

  2. September 16, 2009 2:27 am

    Great post, Laura. To take Mike’s point a step further, API’s should be about distributing content to all platforms, including your own. That is, an API is a great way to attract a developer community, get content to partners, etc., but it can also enable you to be much more agile in developing your own products. This is the “eat-your-own-dogfood” model and I would argue that this model offers the biggest return on investment for your API.

  3. November 18, 2010 5:33 pm

    “Beware the cool idea.” What a great phrase. I see entirely too much energy spent on cool ideas in IT, and almost none re-evaluating how to use technology to change behaviors and process. It’s often the ugly, boring, “we already know how to do that” problems that stand the most to gain from new technologies.

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