Why Starbucks and Dell get the wrong ideas

The classic view of innovation is one where a large number of ideas get generated, put in a funnel, and prioritized against some criteria, leading to the eventual implementation of a few ideas in a “kill early and kill often” logic. When trying to engage customers in a co-creation dialogue, many companies simply open this innovation pipeline to customers and ask them to contribute such ideas. This is for example what Starbucks does in its highly touted MyStarbucksIdea.com website, or Dell on its equally acclaimed IdeaStorm.com site. There is even cheap software, now available as a service – such as the one offered by Salesforce.com – that allows organizations to quickly put up a site using this idea generation and prioritization logic.

MyStarbucksIdea

This approach has generated a passionate mobilization of some customers, which is laudable. But there is a significant problem: though some of the ideas submitted on the site are very good, many do not amount to a hill of beans (pun intended). The main problem is that “ideas” are not the right unit of analysis for co-creation. Ideas are typically expressed in the form of fairly naïve products or services suggestions  – e.g., “Why don’t you offer more chocolate-based products?” – or occasionally in the form of a new desirable customer experience – e.g., “I would like to not have to wait for my Frappuccino.” But customers can only imagine products or experiences they already know from somewhere else, i.e., they’re not really co-creating anything with the company. The people of Starbucks and Dell are not really engaging with customers on those sites either. They’re simply rating the pre-packaged suggestions of customers.

A more useful starting point for customers would be to imagine with employees new interaction processes through which they would engage with Starbucks or Dell. It is easier to imagine a new mode of interaction than a new experience, because an interaction involves action, while experience implies a conceptualization of some future emotional state, by definition a hazardous endeavor. For example, I may not be able to imagine the experience of eating a banana if I’ve never tasted one, but I can imagine how I would like to interact with the banana, i.e., where I would like to find it, how to store it, how to peel it, how to integrate it into a cake, etc.

IdeaStorm

The co-creation approach is closer to the management of quality – where the process is the unit of analysis – than to the management of an R&D pipeline – where ideas are the basic building blocks. The application field of co-creation is so vast that trying to co-create single ideas and managing them centrally is doomed to failure, for the same reason that trying to centrally identify and manage individual processes would be overwhelming in a quality program. Just as all processes require continuous redesign, a large number of interactions will have to be opened up to co-creation inside and outside most organizations over the next few years, making it impossible to manage these ideas in centralized fashion. A better approach is to train members of the organization and their customers in co-creation and organize them into small teams working on individual areas.

This requires a structuring in interactions that is absent on both the Starbucks and Dell sites. When MyStarbucksIdeas.com becomes MyStarbucksProcesses.com and IdeaStorm.com yields to InteractionStorm.com at Dell, the process of customer co-creation will start in earnest.

The co-creation approach is closer to the management of quality – where the process is the unit of analysis – than to the management of an R&D pipeline – where ideas are the basic building blocks. The application field of co-creation is so vast that trying to co-create single ideas and managing them centrally is doomed to failure, for the same reason that trying to centrally identify and manage individual processes would be overwhelming in a quality program. Just as all processes require continuous redesign, a large number of interactions will have to be opened up to co-creation inside and outside most organizations over the next few years, making it impossible to manage these ideas in centralized fashion. A better approach is to train members of the organization and their customers in co-creation and organize them into small teams working on individual areas.

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6 Responses to “Why Starbucks and Dell get the wrong ideas”

  1. Janelle says:

    Another example that maybe better represents the spirit of customer co-creation is Adobe’s ideas.acrobat.com. Powered by Brightidea software, the webstorm allows Acrobat to tap into a concentrated community of loyal, engaged users. These users’ votes and comments function as a “first grinder” for the ideas submited by the community and help the product managers prioritize new features. The product managers stay up-to-date on new ideas and comments through RSS feeds. In a collaborative effort with the engineering staff they make sure their feature lists are aligned with the users’ requests.

    To date, dozens of ideas have been implemented and more are in the development pipeline.

    Not the black hole that Dell and Starbucks have created but, as you say, ‘a new interaction processes’, that is proving worthwhile.

  2. Marc says:

    I would be less critical concerning this kind of initiatives (Starbucks & Dell).

    We can consider that this kind of websites 3.0. are part of a loyalty program : take the pretext of ‘innovation’, the pretext of ‘suggest your new ideas’ in order to retain your customers. And if they propose an interesting idea, why not ?!
    This is the same concept as adeliciousdilemma.com of Nestlé or also of kraftfirsttaste.com

    So, forget the quality of the ideas, thanks to this kind of website, the customers cross the boundaries of the company, can suggest their own ideas, evoke their wishes…
    That’s new and customers like it !

    But of course, this is not real ‘co-creation’ and Starbucks and Dell should go one step further. Inviting their customers in their ‘kitchen of innovation’ thanks new interaction processes with the employees as you suggest it. but this website are the beginning of this interaction process

    Marc R

  3. Francis Gouillart says:

    For Janelle, thanks for leading me to the Adobe site. This is indeed a more advanced form of co-creation than Starbucks and Dell. The ideas are crisper and one can see the engagement coming from users. I wish I had seen more involvement from Adobe produt management people on the site, but I will take your word that product developers actually interact with those passionate users and use their suggestions for the next generation design.

  4. Francis Gouillart says:

    For Marc,
    Yes, I know you’re right. Many of these sites are in fact ways of creating a basic engagement of customers with the firm and beginning the co-creation process. Getting them to open the door of the company is indeed the first step. The company’s role is then, as you say, to guide them to the kitchen and have them bake a casserole.

  5. […] of the fathers of co-creation, Francis Gouillart, wrote an interesting blog post about the oh-so-praised co-creation initiatives IdeaStorm and MyStarbucksIdea. He thinks that […]

  6. […] who in turn will  support you with strategic brand development, insight, and innovation”. (Gouillart, 2009) Prof. Ramaswamy: “If we think of co-creation as not just “creating together”, but […]

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