Innovation the Tom Sawyer Way

Innovation the Tom Sawyer WayOver the last few years I’ve noticed a continuing discussion in many organizations about the origin of ideas. Should the ideas they commercialize originate from inside the organization, outside the organization or both. So far few executives have cast their vote for “neither”. Increasingly, firms that have focused on internal innovation have begun to rely more heavily on external ideas and technologies. Many firms that have traditionally relied on internal innovation are noticing that there are far more ideas and technologies outside their walls than inside, and far more entrepreneurs and small companies who are willing to experiment with new solutions and technologies than the larger firms can. Finally, smaller firms often have more rapid processes and response times, and are able to try out several iterations in less time with less cost than larger firms.

It would appear, in many cases, that “outsourcing” innovation would be a smart move, if a larger firm were able to signal its needs, influence external research and innovation, and constantly review the work that is being done, so as to snatch up good ideas and technologies before other firms could understand the value of an entrepreneur’s concepts. Being of a literary frame of mind, I pondered this approach and realized that one of our most famous literary characters had done this in literature. His name was Tom Sawyer, the famous character created by Mark Twain. Here’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek approach to low risk, low cost open innovation.

First, a little history

If you aren’t familiar with Mark Twain or Tom Sawyer, a little history or literary review may be in order. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a novel written about a young man growing up on the Mississippi River in the Deep South before the Civil War. Tom is an inquisitive, engaging young man, open to any adventure but inherent lazy. When tasked with the responsibility of painting the fence in front of his house, agonizes over the task.  He’d rather go fishing, or many other things rather than paint the fence, so he considers how to get other people to do the work for him. He settles on a plan to make it appear that painting the fence is more fun than sitting in the shade watching other people paint. As other children congregate to watch him paint, he extolds the fun of painting, and eventually has the other children clamoring to get to paint the fence. By the end of the episode, Tom is found relaxing in the shade as other children paint the fence for him. He has outsourced all the work, at no cost to himself, and has even accepted small gifts from the children in order to allow them to paint the fence.

Innovation the Tom Sawyer way

Corporations can learn from Tom Sawyer and apply his ideas to their innovation needs. This can’t happen without some forethought and strategic planning, but done well it can mean a lot of your innovation activities are actually conducted by a constellation of firms that rely on your insights.

Let’s look at what Tom did to get the other children to paint the fence for him, and what that means for corporate innovators who seek excellent technologies.

1. Create a clear plan. Tom’s parents expected him to paint the fence. Tom needed complete the work, but preferred not to do the work himself. So he created a plan and executed it to perfection.

2. Create demand. Tom convinced others that doing the work was more interesting and more fun than watching the work. Kids who would have normally been out playing were offering small inducements to have the opportunity to do Tom’s work for him.

3. Claim the final product. Tom was able to complete the fence painting, so his parents were happy and none the wiser. Beyond that, Tom ended up with snacks, toys and other gifts that the kids gave him to get to do his painting for him.

How can a corporation apply Tom Sawyer’s approach

Rather than attempt to generate all ideas and all technologies, a really savvy innovator could improve its ability to signal its needs, encourage partners to generate ideas and research, and swoop in to license those solutions before competitors do. To accomplish this effectively, here’s what the savvy Tom Sawyer-like innovator would need to do:

1. Define it’s corporate strategy and communicate it clearly. While this seems obvious, go test it at your company. Many people have little to no idea what the corporation’s strategies are. Even fewer outsiders understand the strategy, so they will struggle to support it until it is communicated clearly.

2. Encourage third parties, research institutions, entrepreneurs and others to engage with you in your quest for the future. Simply spouting a message isn’t enough. You need to build networks and relationships to external firms that can help make your future needs a reality.

3. Create energy and excitement about the research efforts. Tom made it seem like fun to paint the fence, and attracted a crowd who watched and bid for the opportunity to paint. You’ll need a network, but you’ll also need to constantly energize that network to encourage them to work on ideas or technologies that are vital for you.

4. Monitor the progress of external agents constantly and carefully. If you know what you need, and you know what partners are working on, and you know their progress, it puts your firm in a position to

5. License or acquire the ideas, intellectual property or technology at just the right time. As the technologies evolve, are tested and validated, your firm can be the first in line to attempt to acquire or license the technology or idea.

Note that this approach doesn’t absolve you from internal innovation activities, but it can accelerate the development of new ideas and technology with little cost or risk to you, until the concepts are more robust and potentially vetted through customer tests or prototyping. You’ve simply got to make it so compelling for someone else to do your work that they do it willingly, and then you can capitalize on the risks and investments they made when the technologies are ready to implement.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.

Jeffrey Phillips




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