Collaborate to innovate, says Mindjet’s James Gardner


Collaboration and ‘crowd thinking’ can help organisations to innovate, says James Gardner, author and SVP of Product at innovation management tool vendor, Mindjet. Chris Middleton presents an exclusive Q&A with him.

UCInsight: Your software tools help organisations manage innovation. But what are the obstacles to innovation? Why do companies need software to manage it?

James Gardner (JG): “The bigger and more ‘command and control’ an organisation is, the harder it is for innovation to exist. Usually, the boss wants more innovation, and frontline people want it too, but then there is the middle layer – middle managers – who are ‘goaled’ on doing the same thing over and over again. There’s no benefit to them in being innovative, because if they are the likelihood is that things will go wrong.

“In fact, there are usually systemic rewards for middle managers not innovating – for example, their annual bonus might be related to serving a particular number of customers, so they’re always rewarded for doing things the same. The problem is how to fix that: how can it be made more compelling to innovate than simply replicating the same processes over and over again? That’s what our tools aim to do.”

So how can collaborative tools help to foster and manage innovation within organisations?

JG: “Our idea was that everyone who puts an idea into one of our tools can then read everyone else’s ideas and make some decisions about them. Because if you’re frontline staff and you have a great idea, then there’s probably no way that you can bust through middle management to get to the CEO. But if it’s you plus 1,000 people who have all agreed that your idea is brilliant, then you’ll get heard, as no CEO will want to ignore that. So we’re building tools that use consensus to break down barriers.

“When we put together Spigit [of which Gardner was CTO when the company was acquired by Mindjet] the state of the art in repeatable innovation was the suggestion box. That’s a great means of giving people a voice if they want things to change, but it has a disadvantage: it fills up. And then the challenge becomes: Who’s going actually to read all this stuff and then take action? Because if nothing happens, then people stop using the suggestion box. Our tools use internal crowdsourcing rather than a single person’s time.”

A wiki-like approach…

JG: “Yes, and now our focus is, rather than just getting crowds to look at ideas and review them, what if we can give crowds the ‘hands’ to actually do something about those ideas in a decentralised way? In that scenario, organisations not only listen to employees, but also empower them to act.”

In our personality-obsessed culture, there’s a perception that innovation lies in brilliant individuals, rather than in crowds.

JG: “I’m fascinated with the idea of the iPhone and how Apple, a computer company that had never been in the phone business, could make the iPhone happen. When you think about that, then you do start thinking along the lines of ‘innovation heroes’, which is what everyone thinks Steve Jobs was.

“What I can tell you from our data is that large organisations where that sort of change happens always have an innovation hero, someone who is so dynamic and influential that they make this stuff a reality. But the interesting thing is it doesn’t have much to do with hierarchy. It could be the CEO, but it doesn’t have to be.

“We observe there are innovation heroes who can get stuff done, and we observe that there is ‘everyone else’, but what we don’t observe from our data is that there’s any difference in the quality of ideas between those two groups.

“Innovation heroes are seen as such because they get stuff done, not because they’re more brilliant than everyone else. We want to build tools that bring down the barriers between innovation heroes and ‘everyone else’, so that if you have a brilliant idea then it can become a reality.”

Where does your data come from?

JG: “We have six million users, in some hundreds of companies that use our products to create internal social networks. And we can see how data flows from individuals into groups, and what the progress is of ideas through this social system. And we can compare these processes from industry to industry to see emergent behaviours around ideas.”

Has your data produced any standout strategies for running an innovative business?

JG: “We observe certain characteristics in organisations that are good at innovating. Number one is that there is a pervasive culture of permission, in which people are told ‘You may go and do this’. That’s something we don’t normally see in very hierarchical, command-and-control organisations.

“Of course, when people are given permission to try things, often those things don’t work – and our data suggests that happens in about 50 to 80 per cent of cases. So an innovative culture also has to be one that accepts high levels of failure, and even celebrates failure as a means to get on to the next idea. In the organisations we look at, those are the most important things.”

But innovation is not just about software tools…

JG: “No, and often organisations think ‘I must be more innovative’ and then simply google ‘innovation tools’ and buy one. That’s the wrong approach. There first needs to be recognition within the organisation that innovation is a people problem, not a systems or software problem. Everything is a people problem first.

“People problems include establishing a ‘permission to innovate’ culture, but also putting in place the frameworks that allow people to take time out from their day jobs to develop a new idea – frameworks that say: ‘This project failure was not your personal mistake, but simply the result of trying out new ideas’.”

What else have you found?

“It turns out that innovation is an extremely social activity: it’s not just the ideas, but who’s associated with them, who developed them, who advanced them, who champions them. It doesn’t have anything to do with one brilliant person dreaming up a lightbulb. There might have been that moment of brilliance, but after that it’s a very social activity.

“We’re now spending a lot of time on whether we can predict if an idea will be successful. Obviously it short-circuits the process if we know that an idea has all the characteristics of these other ideas that were successful, so it’s important to put eyeballs on that.”

Isn’t that part of the problem, not the solution? The Hollywood model of ‘This idea has been successful already, so let’s replicate it’. Sometimes real innovation comes from people understanding that the accepted wisdom about something – what the crowd believes, if you like – might not be true.

JG: “What we’re trying to do with our algorithms is steer attention, not make decisions. The advantage of our approach is it uses crowds of people, crowds of brains. If there are thousands of ideas, we look at how we can steer the crowd towards the ones that are most likely to be important. But that’s not to say that the others won’t get looked at.

“Crowds are very good at ‘needle in haystack’ problems – finding the best idea in a thousand. Crowds are also great at cognition problems: How much do you think this could be worth? What are the business benefits?, and so on. Collaborative tools are all about directing the attention of this ‘super animal’, the crowd.”

But isn’t there a risk that the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ might overlook a really original idea in favour of something that’s safer, a continuation of everything that’s gone before? Like a giant mass of middle managers, in fact?

JG: “We don’t see evidence of that occurring. We see that the crowd doesn’t tend to evaluate based on what they like, but what they think is possible. But it’s true that a genius idea might emerge that has no possibility of being implemented, and that a crowd of like-minded people may tend not to like that idea. But that’s where another important idea comes in: the crowd of diversity. There’s no point having a crowd of similar people evaluating all the ideas.

“Non-intuitive niches are ‘needle in haystack’ problems, which diverse crowds are very good at. You might not expect a mainstream corporate strategist to have thought of going into one of those niches, but you would expect a diverse crowd to find that niche if it exists. Everything is a question of how many eyes and ears do you have on a problem.”

So what’s the future for Mindjet? What is your strategy over the next few years?

JG: “For us, the issue now is: Is it right to turn 10,000 ideas into just one actionable strategy? An output that is the result of ‘stage gate’ thinking, where the focus is on putting all the resources and investment into the one idea that has the biggest chance of success. But what is the value of the other 9,999 ideas? How much are they worth?

“So the tools we’re building now and the data-science we’re applying tell us that maybe there is a way to get 10,000 things done from 10,000 ideas, so that’s the future of our software. If you have a great idea, we want to optimise your chances of getting it done.”

About Author

Chris Middleton

Chris Middleton is a widely respected business and technology journalist, author, and magazine editor. In recent years he has been Editor of Computing (where he remains Consulting Editor); co-founder and Managing Editor of Professional Outsourcing – a magazine he developed from scratch and grew to be the leading magazine in its field; Editor of CBR in its most successful year; and co-founder and launch Editor of Today, he is co-Director of EastwoodMiddleton Publishing, and founder, designer, and Editor in Chief of Strategist magazine (UK), the boardroom magazine that provides strategic insight for business leaders, and of its mobile-first digital edition at He is also co-founding Editor of Child Internet Safety magazine, and a contributing Editor of Over the years Chris has also written for, among many others, The Guardian, The Times, the BBC, and Computer Weekly. He is the author of several successful books on digital media, and a commissioning editor of more than 50 books.