Hacking Innovation

I just got home from the Brisbane Innovation Network‘s field trip to HackerSpace Brisbane.  It was a great evening.  William Gebers gave us a tour of their PortHack operations, and there are some important innovation lessons to be learned from what they’re doing there.

You Have to Fail to Learn

HSBNE has all kinds of tools to play with.  They have metal and wood shops, blacksmithing, a chem lab, and a big workspace for 3D printing and other digital projects.  When he was showing us the metal shop, William talked about how people learn skills there.  It all comes through failing – that’s how we all learn.  He said that there are enough parts around that you can screw up a project 10 times, until you finally get it right.

We often forget this when we’re trying to innovate.  There is so much pressure to not waste resources that we ignore the best way to learn – testing stuff.  HSBNE is built for trial and error, and we need to build this capability into our own organisations.

Some woodworking experiments at HSBNE

Some woodworking experiments at HSBNE

Collaboration Drives Innovation

Why not just do this trial and error in your own garage?  There are a couple of reasons.  HSBNE can pool resources to get tools and equipment that might be too expensive for one person on their own.  But more importantly, it’s a collaboration space.  The whole idea behind putting people with such diverse interests together is that they can learn from each other, build on each other’s ideas, and make something bigger and better than one person alone could.

Again, this is something that we often forget in our larger organisations.  Here is how Nilofer Merchant puts it:

There are two ways of holding an idea. One is with a closed fist, and one is with an open palm.
When you hold an idea in a closed fist, you control it. It is yours. And no one else can access it. Ideas held tightly — as if in a fist — can’t be seen. Sure, if you try really hard, you might be able to see the little bits between the cracks. But they’re hard to see, share — or steal.

But an idea held in an open hand can evolve. It has space to grow bigger. Ideas are actually organic, living things. If they have room to expand, they can quite possibly spread, and be picked up by others and grow into something much, much bigger than what you imagined.

William shows us the 3D printers, with hackers hacking in the background

William shows us the 3D printers, with hackers hacking in the background

Cheap Prototypes Rule

William told us about one of the recent projects they’ve done.  One person invented a new medical device.  After getting a patent on it, he sent the design to a firm in Adelaide to build a prototype – and paid them $10,000 for it.  After too long with no news, he chased them up.  They told him that the design was flawed and it couldn’t be built.  So he took the design and printed it out on one of the HSBNE 3D printers.  This showed the expensive shop how to make it.

There is enormous value in building a prototype for your great idea.  At HSBNE most of these prototypes are physical objects, but as Diego Rodriguez says, anything can be prototyped:

Anything can be prototyped. Prototypes aren’t just for physical products. I routinely see people prototyping services, complex experiences, business models, and even ventures.

You can prototype with anything.  You want to get an answer to your big question using the bare minimum of energy and expense possibly, but not at the expense of the fidelity of the results.  It’s not only about aluminum, foamcore, glue, and plywood.  A video of the human experience of your proposed design is a prototype.  Used correctly, an Excel spreadsheet is a wonderful prototyping tool.  GMail started out as an in-market prototype.

A wise person operates with the worldview that anything can be prototyped, and we can prototype with anything.

That’s one of his 21 principles of innovation, which you should check out.



We Need to Hack Business Models Too

The last lesson comes from observation.  HSBNE is a space for making ideas real.  All innovation starts with a great idea, but a great idea alone isn’t innovation.  To innovate, you have to generate value from that idea.  That means that you need to build a business model to go with your great idea.

This is often a problem for inventors.  They like to hack stuff, not business models.  That’s why many successful startups have both technical and business founders.  The technical founder hacks the stuff, and the business founder hacks the business model.  The catch is that to successfully hack the business model, you need deep knowledge of the field you’re entering, so the business founder usually needs some technical knowledge as well.

This is true in startups, and it’s also true in larger firms.  Just as an example, what would a hacked business look like for an accounting firm?  That’s the discussion I had with another person this afternoon – and it’s a question worth considering for a lot of markets in addition to accounting.

I know that the HSBNE mob is working on hacking their own business model, which is great.  I think there are a lot of lessons that can be drawn from their experience.

Let’s start hacking innovation.


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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “Hacking Innovation

    • That’s really good to hear Annalie – I think that it’s a very useful approach to take. I haven’t every spoken directly to anyone at AMP, but from what I’ve heard it sounds like the organisation is doing really good work with innovation.

  1. Tim, Prototyping is quite powerful. In our work, we prototype everything. Ideas, concepts, interactions, business models, design, staffing roles, pricing….

    We have a strong design thinking bend to our work and hence, this is natural. In our workshops, we stress the importance of prototyping in creating effective programs for social change.

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