Subba’s Serendipitous moments

September 23, 2009

Netflix’s “crowdsourcing” approach is a success

I have been following Netflix unique experiment to improve its Web site’s movie recommendation system. This week Netflix announced the winner of a three year contest with the winner BellKore comprising of statisticians, computer scientists, data mining experts netting a cool million dollars.

The rules of the competition was fairly straightforward. The qualification for the prize was that the winning team has to improve by at least 10% the prediction of what movies customers would like as measured against the actual ratings. The teams were grappling with a huge data set of more than 100 million movie ratings.

Over the past three years there have been 44,014 entries from 5,169 teams in 186 countries vying for the top prize

I think with this experiment and with Google’s experiment with crowdsourcing described here, there will be a significant shift towards innovation management. The fact that there exists more intelligence and wisdom and the collective effort outside the company’s eco-system has gained credibility. I expect many such organizations embarking on the contest mode to solve intractable problems.

There are a number of lessons that this contest brings about.

First, it indicates that there can be a marketplace for innovation where companies could post their product development challenges and for an interesting contest, the best brains are willing to compete. It sharpens their own abilities.

Second as the BellKore team and other teams demonstrated there is a willingness for disparate people to actively collaborate. While cooperation and collaboration within many organizations has been challenging, I wonder how such disparate people could come together and collaborate easily for a bigger goal.

Third, for people who believed in having an inhouse R&D and saw that as a competitive advantage, this experiment seeks to blow that myth away.

Note: Netflix Prize 2 would challenge competitors to recommend movies based on demographic and behavioral data.

September 1, 2009

Wikipedia wrestles with a growth and direction dilemma

Wikipedia has been an unqualified success of this decade. It is just not the product but the way they have created it. They spawned a new ideology, a new culture. In fact several enterprises have started to develop their content management and even the knowledge management practices around a wiki model.

However Wikipedia itself faces a deep dilemma about its growth and direction.

It started off as an encyclopedia from voluntary contributors and complete freedom to improve the content. Now, in its latest announcement it will impose an editorial review on articles. So, now the notion that everyone can change the entries is no longer true. In my view this is inevitable. A great ability to influence has to be accompanied by an equal amount of responsibility.

Currently they are doing a review about their culture and growth direction. I am particularly pleased that they are doing that because one of their commitments was to give a free encyclopedia to the world in possibly every language. They clearly seem to have lost sight of that.

The interesting thing is that Jimmy Wales — the man who created this movement and now an iconic figure is most critical about the direction itself.

Unlike corporations, Wikipedia is run by a Foundation which means that they have followers wedded to a particular cause. Changing the growth trajectory is not simply a matter of a CEO or the Board making a decision, but they would need to carry the thousands of volunteers with them — no easy task.

This would be an interesting organizational change to watch and learn from.

August 20, 2009

How to build a successful innovation team?

Recently I delivered a talk on business innovation. My main thesis was why that offers a competitive advantage and offers the best barrier to entry. There were interesting questions, but the question that flummoxed me was asked by a young MBA student and it went as follows: How to build a successful innovation team?

Not having worked in R&D or an innovation team, I had to admit my ignorance. I promised that I will think about it and revert. I asked several HR managers, consultants and even some innovation experts. I was not satisfied with most of the responses because they talked about examining past track records, achievements and so on. That doesn’t say much and I don’t necessarily agree with experience being a true predictor.. So here’s what I have come up with:

  • Hire someone who doesn’t care much for stability, hierarchy, order and predictability. Every problem is unique and will need a different thinking approach.
  • Find someone who appreciates and thrives on ambiguity. Ambiguity often has negative connotations, but to me to be able to appreciate the grey area and to live in the mental conflict zone is key to finding the breakthrough.
  • A deep competency is good, but the person should be genuinely interested in other things. It is when you are looking at something else with genuine interest, a serendipity play converts the competency to a breakthrough.
  • Have the ability to “abstractize” a practical problem and see a practical problem and hence an opportunity in an abstract thought. This calls for people who can have their feet on the ground and the head in the cloud and span the space between them.
  • Finally and I think this is the most important: The last thing a team needs is finding another clone. Stop looking for something similar to what you already have. You need to fill gaps that are in your team and complement the competency and hence the more of the same doesn’t always make it successful.

(I am assuming that there exists some amount of passion, enthusiasm, respect for people and inter-personal communication strengths.)

It would be difficult to expect all this in an individual. However collectively the team should have these qualities. Whether they become successful or not is a different question. It depends on the mindset and a whole range of factors. But at least you know that we have a good capable team of cracking a problem.

Does anyone have a competency model to build innovation teams?

May 15, 2009

The team of stars or a star team

Filed under: Business,Leadership,Learning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 3:26 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

I have been thinking about what makes a great team as in the past few weeks several conversations with friends and business associates have gone in this direction. Often in my life if I have a series of causal discussions veering towards a particular theme or topic for no particular reason, I know I am on the verge of making a self discovery. The topic of team work is one such serendipitious moment.

I have great respect for people who can make ordinary teams extraordinary. And often this is highly underrated in an executive’s bio. Surprisingly this trait doesn’t get ratings even in leadership and management skills or behavioral inventory lists.

The manner in which Guus Hiddink has made a success of every coaching assignment led me to ponder deeper. Guus Hiddink took an unknown Korean team to the semi finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup defeating in the process formidable teams like Italy, Poland and Spain before losing to Germany. Just to prove that it was no flash in the pan,  he coached Australian soccer team to success in the 2006 world cup and is credited with turning a team into a solid defensive unit which only conceded one goal away from home to both Uruguay and the Netherlands. Well, success with the Russia soccer team followed.

Now more recently, as the caretaker manager of the Chelsea club, he has taken an ordinary bunch of players who were drawing every other match into a winning team and proved to all and sundry that he is an extraordinary coach.

Well, all that I would say is that a very deep understanding of human condition (the good, the bad and the ugly in all of us) to harness the energy and the talents of a team. Money alone will not buy loyalty, commitment, performance and achievement. Singularity of vision, ability to motivate, to energise and the knack of rallying a group of people around a single vision or goal all contribute towards delivering a high performing team. One undoubtedly needs talented individuals within a team, but without inspired leadership a talented team they just become a team with stars.

Not a star team.