James Governor's Monkchips

Innovation, Networks and Random Acts of Traction

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I wrote a long post about the nature of innovation and where SAP is heading in order to foster more of it, the other day. Sadly, I missed some of the TechMeme goodness on the subject because I didn’t post til Monday.

Well yesterday Nicholas Carr more than made up for it with what can best be described as a Random Act Of Traction. He wrote a great note called Firestorm! which quoted my blog pretty extensively. One of the points he amplifies is my take on the randomness of innovation.

Round about the middle of his ramble, just after he tosses in a photo of the Kindle, he states a point that we too often lose sight of in our desire to convince ourselves that we are Masters of Our Fate: to wit, most of the great business model “breakthroughs” are really just accidents that happened to happen while some dudes (gender-neutral) were doing something that interested them. (Governor points to Google and Facebook as recent examples.) It’s only afterwards that the eggheads and pundits rush in to create the illusion that Painstaking Business Logic and Carefully Plotted Strategy were at work from the start. We are as Gods on Earth – at least in retrospect.

Innovation emerges from indirection. (Remember: nobody knows nothing.) And indirection is a quality that is not dreamt of in the philosophies of the big-ass enterprise software applications, like ERP, that are characterized by having three initials and enormous sales forces.

That is the nature of discontinuous, information-saturated, innovation, which favors bursty over busy (see Anne Zelenka’s forthcoming book for more on the subject). 

I was just on the phone talking with Hugh MacLeod talking about the hiding to nothing of measuring engagement, against somewhat spurious numbers like “page views” when he came up with the delicious phrase to describe engagement breakthroughs “random acts of traction” -which for me echoes the Black Swan, and for some reason this amazing film.

Exemplar: Last year’s SXSW fostered many random acts of traction, which led to Twitter’s current position as the ADD-driven social software maven’s best friend. Random acts of traction are all around us. But to benefit from them you have to be networked and networking. Gartner may be right to tell enterprises not to invest in building their own social networks. But use them you must. Ask Gartner analyst Jeff Mann (thanks esjewett!). In the 20th century economic success in IT was established by raising barriers to entry. In the 21st it will be about lowering barriers to participation. Economies are networked, and the invisible hand is a great one for random acts of traction. Just add some grit here, pour some water on there, and pat a little snow just there…. or maybe just pour on the gasoline

As Nick concludes:

“Whether it’s SAP or Google or Salesforce or Facebook or 37Signals or Workday or Ozzie’s Microsoft or some unknown kid spilling Red Bull on his keyboard, the kindling has been lit and there’s no stopping it now. Just as pickup trucks can be brawny yet nimble, enterprise software can be stable yet sexy.”


For bonus points: How do you foster and meet the “hidden demand“? By far my favourite blog of the week came from Jake Kuramoto. It makes me happy to see representatives of Oracle and SAP happily co-innovating, working out stuff (on twitter natch!) that will potentially benefit both company’s customer bases. These guys can see opportunities beyond the shackles of success. They don’t have to agree, but the discussion makes them and us smarter. When it comes to social networks should the enterprise adopt “consumer” flavours, clone loose-coupled services, or build out its own platform? The conversation likely makes a nice companion piece to the Gartner report I point to above, assuming you’re a subscriber. For more ‘innovation by developers’ goodness SAP Composition on Grails looks quite the thing.


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Picture courtesy of Sontra at Flickr.


  1. Actually my post was a sarcastic remark on this Cool By Association project.

    The official name of the project is “Composition on Rails”, even though it doesn’t use Rails but Grails, and they refer to Grails as “Rails-Like”.

    So it’s a project that boldly lies about what it is, yet shamelessly promotes a ‘me-too’ architecture. Now particularly inspiring.

    On the other hand, the ‘influenced by 37Signals UI’ that you mentioned in your post (great read, btw) is inspiring. Yes, it’s SAP copying 37Signals, but that’s what good artists do. And they’re straight forward about it, and they’re starting at the top, not from second best.

  2. Thanks for the plug.

    One unexpected perk of the job is meeting people who have encountered the same challenges and being asked to share experiences with people in similar situations.

    Driving change is hard, so it’s nice to have an ad hoc support group that can understand and contribute thoughts. That’s why Paul started The Working Group (workinggroup.ning.com).

    Hidden demand is gravy inside the enterprise b/c it’s the most effective way to get people thinking about new web and using it. The principles bleed over into everyday work then, e.g. my product really should have this feature.

    As you say, this benefits customers.

  3. James, my friend, how can you write about innovation and not cite a single customer…come over to my New Florence blog


    and see what UPS, Hertz, Jetblue, NFL, SF Giants, and countless other companies are doing.

    So called innovation by vendors is sugared water, those by customers is mother’s milk!!

  4. What then is innovation between vendors and customers? Sugar milk?

  5. James,
    great series this.
    I buy the serendipity for invention but innovation takes many forms. Yes, breakthroughs are often mold in test-tube moments, but most business success is based on solid hard working execution.

    I’ve been reading a bit lately on innovation theory, and there is a lot more to it than customers doing cool stuff.

    Take Archimedes in the bath. Without him having tried for years to figure out density first, his bath moment would have just been a puddle on the floor.

    Metacool recently spoke at a conference on innovation, wish I’d attended. http://metacool.typepad.com/metacool/2007/12/creativity-entr.html

    A prof involved the event posted this description.

    One highly successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur will ask whether management is a net positive or negative in fostering creativity and invention. He will cite a growing body of evidence that suggests that bottom-up “discovery” has a superior record in comparison with “top down ‘deliberate’ strategies from headquarters.” He asks whether companies should call a halt to managing the innovation process, “intentionally abandoning control of their scarcest resources.”

    He goes on….

    All ask whether management, as it is currently practiced, has much to contribute to innovation and creativity. If the answer is little, one might ask what kinds of changes will be necessary to allow managers, particularly in larger organizations, to add value to the creative process? Or is it more productive to explore ways of providing incentives to the innovators of the world, largely outside large organizations, possibly by facilitating the market that mediates resources between investors and innovators?

    Figuring out innovation isn’t easy. I also wish it had been a bigger part of my business school studies in the the early 1990’s. Thanks to the innovationzen blog, I’ve just come across Utterback and Abernathy’s paper, A Dynamic Model of Product and Process innovation, published in 1975. (Better late than never)

    Much to learn and ponder.

    It is one thing to have a serendipitous moment, it is another step up to actually focus and execute on it.

    IBM seems to somehow get this.

  6. Assaf: your whole post was sarcastic? wow. you really went to town on that. your comment here also seems far more negative than your tone there. ah well – thanks anyway to the Grails project.

    Vinnie- SAP is a customer… you mean companies that don’t sell IT hardware, services or software, right? i like sugared water-best with lemon juice. i much prefer it to milk, actually.

    what jake said- sugar milk. i make that for my son sometimes.

    Thomas- nice keyword “series”. i plan more of this – especially given our book next year “Lower Barriers” – which is going to look at innovation and community building and 21st century networked economics. You’re absolutely right to call out the different kinds of innovation- innovation by incremental process improvement can be powerful. its just not breakthrough- won’t *remake* an entire industry, but might change market share in one.

  7. […] Governor is on top form at the moment. His  random acts of traction post  is strong on the power of serendipity, but I sense there is a lot more Gary Player in […]

  8. James, one positive post quoting yours on how 37signals is influencing SAP — I think that’s a good thing, a positive sign of things to come — and in juxtaposition, one post about the Grails project.

    I think doing something with Grails is a good start, but not when you’re hiding the truth about that project. It’s the last part that bothers me. That’s legacy enterprise vendor thinking, the very thing we want to change.

    Unfortunately, sarcasm doesn’t translate well on the Web.

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