“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” – Henry Ford
Perhaps Mr. Ford was onto something with this one and “perhaps” he was decades ahead of his time as well. We of course say that a bit tongue-in-cheek considering the man revolutionized manufacturing. But we use this quote specifically because today, it can be repurposed to fit the entirely new paradigm of Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing. Perhaps now, many decades on, we have crafted a more fancy word to title what Henry Ford was explaining, but it still means the same thing, and it still rings as true today as it did in Henry Ford’s heyday. The word is atomization and there are four very specific reasons you should utilize “it” within your Open Innovation and Crowdsourced initiatives. First, let’s define it.
What is Atomization?
The purposeful “break-down” or reverse engineering of your entire project or initiative into the smallest pieces or components that must be accomplished in order to breed a successful whole outcome is the process of atomization. If you’re familiar with the Murray/Dreyfus comedy classic “What About Bob?”, Dr. Leo Marvin (played exceptionally well by Richard Dreyfus) describes these as “baby steps”. What must happen at each step, in it’s smallest possible step, in order for the whole to be successfully achieved. Of course, in the comedy, this was suggested to help a near-socially paralyzed patient – Bob Wiley played by Bill Murray – and each step had to occur in a perfect waterfall so only one step at a time could be attempted and achieved. In Open Innovation – due to accessing a global on-demand talent pool – the process of “atomization” also allows for massively parallel creation, where several pieces of any given project are being accomplished at the same exact time, when that type of parallel productivity suits the build. Whether you are on the TopCoder platform – where atomization is simply part of the process and taken care of for you – or you are attempting this Open Innovation initiative elsewhere, there are 4 very good reasons to heed Henry Ford’s sage advice, and to atomize the work.
Work – especially in the greater fields of technology, medicine, engineering, software and even design – is becoming more and more specialized. Whether it be a need to have a certain software language skill, or the need to have a robust understanding of a specific video editing tool, the work itself is requiring more and more specialized skills to get it done, and to get it done at an exceptionally high-level of quality. When you break projects down into their much smaller components you are setting the groundwork to attract hyper-specific talent to the “pieces” you have identified. You are requesting specific, smaller lifts by myriad contributors and the entirety of the output can benefit from this approach.
The Very Human Consequence of Self-Selection
When you parse out work into much smaller components you are allowing your community members to be highly selective and opt-in to the work they are choosing to register for and compete on. When the community member is in full control, when they themselves can self-select into the piece of work that truly interests them (and interest itself can be comprised of many variables for any given individual) a remarkable consequence occurs; productivity and ingenuity skyrocket. People simply enjoy selecting the work they are about to go do. Perhaps it’s empowerment, perhaps it’s pure love of that specific type of task, we suppose that actually doesn’t matter for this discussion. What matters is, your outputs benefit.
Related Read: The Reason Open Innovation Succeeds in Only 5 Sentences
You have no doubt heard the innovation-linked phrase; “Fail fast, fail often, fail cheap”. The issue, with what is a perfectly good phrase, is that in traditional innovation settings, there aren’t many ways to do any of those things without jeopardizing your job, or blowing out your budget in the process of failing. However, by atomizing your projects, you greatly reduce the risk traditionally associated with failure. For you and your team to fail at a certain piece of the build, means that A) You have not wasted much time in this particular failure B) You have not spent much money in this particular failure (if any, though time is of course money) C) You can likely tweak the competition and re-run that specific project again with the gained knowledge of what obstructed a quality outcome the last time around and D) You did not lose all the previous gains (and outputs) already procured by the competitions that preceded this failure.
Currently, TopCoder is engaged with NASA to create a brand new iPad application to help their astronauts aboard the ISS more easily track their dietary intake. Like every “project” we tackle, this too is atomized into the pieces that will make up the creative whole. If this topic interests you, you should view the breakdown of this iPad app into what are 16 separate competitions on the dedicated micro-site (approximately 3/4 down the page). This project will feature multiple winners, from multiple countries and cultures, collaborating together to form what is this finalized application. By atomizing the pieces so “finely” you are setting up your project to enjoy an innate collaboration that other methodologies simply won’t procure. In an era where co-creation and collaboration are touted (and in many ways rightly so), you can set your Open Innovation efforts up to achieve innate collaboration if you purposefully atomize the work, and work with a global community. What Henry Ford knew and capitalized upon many decades ago is even truer today. With a global workforce of hyperspecialists available to you on-demand, it behooves you to re-think how you ask for assets to be created. Atomization helps bring both a focus and a rigor to your Open Innovation initiatives and it keeps things “small”, even if you are aspiring to create the complex on the whole. Your journey in Open Innovation is likely not about the “one-off” contest but rather the repeatability of the process so it can truly transform how you approach work and innovation at your enterprise. To enjoy repeated success in Open Innovation, understand and master the process of atomization.
image credit: create-the-good-life.com,