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The Journey of an Idea

We just released our internal innovation site for employees to collaborate on new ideas. The site is a social media tool of sorts that let’s anyone at VMware chat about their ideas, rate their interest and share these ideas with others at VMware. Most of the ideas are pretty technical, but there are a number of super ideas on how to do things better here at VMware – from engineering process to creative solutions for our cafeteria. We couldn’t be more excited about the creative juices flowing! Many folks new to this social media way of developing ideas have been asking questions about how the innovation process works in this type of forum. Who are we collaborating with? How do we know our ideas are being considered? What if my idea is dumb? So, my team and I have been thinking a lot about how to answer these questions both through the proverbial FAQ and by pointing folks to some great materials out there that speak to the question of how ideas develop from what could start as the stupidest idea ever. (See Frank Chimero’s drawing of this concept for a visual).

Steven Johnson’s TED talk on where ideas come from gets right down to it – it’s often, not the idea itself, but the network of discussions around that idea that results in that “ah-ha!” moment. In the old days, these discussions would be at a coffee shop or at the pub. As businesses evolved it was water-cooler discussion or the hot topic at the lunch table. The key point of Johnson’s talk though is that it isn’t the original idea itself that becomes the breakthrough, or where it was discussed, but the journey the idea takes to get to something truly novel. It’s a pretty entertaining talk, but don’t be surprised if you’re craving a latte by the end.

Tim Berners-Lee speaks to Johnson’s exact point when asked about the founding of the World Wide Web: “…there was no eureka moment. It was not like the legendary apple falling on Newton’s head to demonstrate the concept of gravity…it was a process of accretion (growth by gradual addition).” In fact, Berners-Lee started the journey towards the Web simply as a solution for him to keep his files organized. There was some element of luck that his idea would catch and inevitably become the information highway, but the idea took a journey before reaching that level of sophistication and adoption…and it’s still going!

These days, we’re in a globally distributed world where often times, our colleagues are in different geographies and time zones. The art of collaboration and idea generation is more complicated! Even a virtual water cooler discussion via teleconference or IM is challenging when the people we work with are probably just waking up when you’re heading to the pub. When you’re part of a distributed team, you often miss out on those casual hallway conversations that so often result in the missing link that takes an idea further along in its journey. So how does one get an idea going in this environment? Well, we’re betting on the social media wave. In just two short weeks, we’ve seen boundaries crossed between countries, teams and levels of the organization as hundreds of ideas are being discussed and brainstormed via VMware’s innovation site. Yes, there are some pretty wacky (and mundane) ideas thrown out there, but even the craziest ideas are garnering responses and as I follow the threads, I am inspired with the creative energy, camaraderie and fun the site is generating.

We had concerns before we launched the site that our colleagues would hold back on the gems for fear of ideas being

“stolen” (we work for the same company, right?). We worried people would show up on the first day and then lose interest. Or, gasp, no one had any good ideas! Silly, right? We’re working with some of the smartest people in the world in a collaborative technology company which, apparently, has no boundaries and might just surprise the world (again) with another disruptive idea that may have started with a simple statement of “you guys probably think this is dumb, but what if we were to….”

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