Fernando Fischmann

To Innovate, Think Like a 19th-Century Barn Raiser

5 August, 2016 / Articles
fernando fischmann

At 7 AM on May 13, 2014, a group of Amish community members gathered on a construction site in rural Ohio. Their goal was to erect a massive, multi-structure barn for a neighbor. By 5 PM that afternoon, a mere 10 hours later, the completed barn stood atop its foundation.

Barn-raising, a practice popularized by 19th-century U.S. farming communities, accomplishes several things. Most obviously, it quickly creates a barn where one hadn’t stood before. Less obviously — but perhaps more importantly — it leverages community intelligence to produce the best barn design possible, and also creates and reinforces collaborative connections crucial for success in farming communities. At the end of the process, the family that initiates the activity not only has a new barn to use, with the wisdom and insights of the broader community baked into the design, it also has new and stronger ties to the community that will help ensure its future activities are fruitful.

Barn-raising can serve as a model for successful new value creation in today’s hyper-connected world. Begin by reaching out to diverse members of your ecosystem, include them in a co-creation process from the outset, and prioritize the growth of that ecosystem as you cultivate the growth of the initiative itself – a process which one of us detailed in a previous article. Following a process like this not only leads you to the most viable solutions, it also builds out the channels and connections you will need for sustained growth.

Consider Kickstarter. To the outsider, the site is about crowdsourcing the funds necessary to kick off a new venture. But it’s much more than that. Ask people who have participated in the platform, and they will tell you that the community they built in the process of Kickstarting turned out to be more valuable than the financing they received. The Kickstarter ecosystem brings together makers, backers, and early adopters as well as community building experts, videographers, and storytellers. This community comes together to help refine ideas, confirm that there is a market, hone messaging, and spread the word to early adopters, on top of providing the resources necessary to get the idea off the ground – all before there’s even a real product to speak of. It is a barn-raising model that has enabled hundreds of thousands of individuals and teams to create and launch new products in the span of a few years.

The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) is another group pursuing a modern-day form of barn-raising. Rather than solving problems by focusing solely on ideas for solutions, CGI focuses first on ecosystem development. The organization convenes heads of state, corporate leaders, members of academia and media; outlines initiatives broadly; asks participants to make a commitment to action on the initiatives; then facilitates dialogue and partnerships to enable solutions to emerge and take root. Neither the ideas, nor the resources collected to support their implementation originate with CGI. The CGI team convenes and facilitates. Through this approach, CGI has addressed humanitarian issues in 180 countries through 3,500 unique commitments.

The barn-raising approach purposely and actively elevates community, connection, and a diversity of viewpoints above ideas and individuals. Too often, new initiatives – especially in big organizations – are developed through a series of inward-facing brainstorming sessions, which are designed to capture the core team’s thinking on the subject. Too often, proposals that look great in PowerPoint turn out to be unappealing, unhelpful, or unworkable to the people whom the success of an idea ultimately depends. And, even when brainstorming initiatives succeed in launching, those in charge of executing the ideas must build out external channels and support systems from scratch.

Pitfalls like these can largely be avoided with a simple ecosystem-focused approach – as farming communities knew in the 19th century, and as the Kickstarter and CGI communities know today. All it requires are a few steps anyone can follow.

  1. Deliberately seek out different perspectives and actively explore them. In your curating, recruit the people who will be affected by your new product or service, and pay special attention to second order and even third order stakeholders. These stakeholders represent those who provide support services or add-ons to your products or services. This will help to ensure your perspective is ecosystem-based. Having the right people is more important than having the right idea.
  2. Bring this curated group together – either in person or virtually via a platform – to connect, share ideas, share perspectives, and contribute their input to the initiative at hand.
  3. Ask participants to commit something toward the initiative. This could be something as small as a bit of their time and attention. It could be introductions. It could be expertise. It could even be resources, partnerships, or funding. What each participant contributes will give you information on how they perceive your initiative’s effect on the greater ecosystem of which they are a part.
  4. After the convening, continue to cultivate relationships with those who have contributed and committed to the initiative. They represent your initial ecosystem.
  5. Once you’ve raised and launched your initiative, periodically check back in with the community by hosting other barn-raising events. As you do so, your initiative will grow, and the ecosystem and connections will grow with it.
  6. By adapting an ecosystem mindset, you will capture more than ideas. You will bind people, networks, and resources together. And if you get those elements right, your initiative will have a better chance of being successful.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.



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