Open Source Innovation

While at SXSW this past week, I had the opportunity to get barraged with lots of ideas, new and old. One that keeps coming back to me in the days since I’ve been home is Open Source. What we do at The Design Gym is as open as we can make it. We bring our community of innovators to bear on the problems of real companies. Asking companies to be that open with their challenges is a big ask—we normally think that the strengths of businesses and governments comes from proprietary knowledge (patents and confidential information). But openness has it’s advantages. The classic example is NOAA – the weather data from NOAA fuels, free of charge, the 2 billion dollar weather industry.

While I missed her at SXSW, I found an older talk by Ruth Suehle where she addresses the values of Open Source. This led me to the awesome interview of’s CEO Hugh Shelton, who was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and a general badass. You can watch him on the Daily Show talk about his book and be awesome.

His interview and Ruth’s talk covered a few principles. You’ll find that they apply not just to innovation but to life in general.

1. Community

When you make something more open, you can invite people in…and you get more ideas…not just your own. That’s why I love thinking on walls. Open source communities and projects  like Wikipedia and linux have created tremendous resources for the entire world to share. One person could not have created these resources all on their own. It’s only by inviting people to join in, and make it their own that we can inspire such productivity.

2. Sharing

It seems like every time I turn around, I hear about another company trying to make an internal knowledge sharing platform, to leverage past work and create internal efficiencies. Tools like Wikis and Yammer can help make it easier to ask around your community and share knowledge openly. Suehle uses the Open High School of Utah as an example of what happens when you make it easy for teachers to share lesson plans and insights quickly and easily. Teachers can modify, adapt and use each other’s ideas freely, fueling improvisation and innovation.

3. Meritocracy

The best ideas should win. Plain and simple!  It’s not about politics, it’s about the truth. Shelton had a great (if somewhat circular) thought on this: “You tell people the truth. You’re candid… That’s what’s great about open source, because that’s what we’re all about.”

4. Rapid prototyping

Open Source means you can take works from around you and pull them together however you can. You don’t wait for perfect…As Bre Pettis said, Perfection is the enemy of Done.

Shelton had a nice thought on that, too: “In the military you work within an acquisition and procurement system that’s bureaucratic and slow,” said Shelton. “The average time from conceptual idea to the time it’s in the hands of the troops is about seven years.” While the military was once great at innovating, they now try to take advantage of existing innovation. It’s faster and sometimes cheaper go out and select commercial, off-the-shelf capabilities that deal with the current threat and modify them as needed.

5. Transparency

Admit your mistakes. When people pitch an idea, it’s important to talk about what works and what doesn’t. Focusing only on the positive is unbalanced.

Shortly after becoming Commander of the joint Chiefs, Shelton dug into rumors about a lack readiness in various branches of the military. The numbers were embarrassing, and the chiefs advised him to not make the request to the president, to protect his legacy. Shelton stood firm. “I’d rather be known as an individual who tried and failed rather than one who met the low standards I set for myself,”

I think the flip side of transparency is comfort with failure—and knowing that failing early, cheaply and often is the best way to learn.


As you can tell, I’m excited about Open Innovation. I think it’s more productive and more transformative than closed Innovation. How can you open the doors on your next project and let the world in?


Daniel Stillman
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