WATCH: The Secret to Bird Feeding (and Innovation Success)

In this ten-minute TEDx York University talk, I recall the simple yet eye-opening bird-feeding experiment that sparked ten years of innovation research to suggest a much-needed shift in our innovation thinking: From creating breadcrumbs that catch on to designing market systems that include everyone.

I want to talk a little bit today about the power of understanding innovation as a social system.

Many years ago, I came to the United States to do my PhD and I came to a small town by the name of Evanston, Illinois. As you may imagine, doing your PhD is a very exciting but also a very stressful time. So I was happy to discover that right next to where I was living there was a beautiful little park.

And so I thought, why don't I just go over to the park and feed the birds. That will relax me. I went over one day and I took a bag of breadcrumbs. I sat down on the bench, spread out the crumbs. And I thought, birds of Evanston, I'm ready. Unfortunately nothing happened. So I went back home and I thought I need to bring better breadcrumbs. I came back the next day, set down on the bench, spread out my breadcrumbs. Birds of Evanston, what do you think? Are you coming? But they didn't come.

So this happened for about a month. And nothing happened. The birds wouldn't show up. And so I thought, okay, I was born and raised in Germany and maybe, you know, US birds are a little more shy. I then decided in my boredom and despair, why don't I just draw a map of the park. Here is the map of the park. It was called Wells Hill Park and you see three benches, four tree clusters, and a playground.

But there was actually much more going on. Parks are very exciting places for that. In addition to the birds that didn't want to have anything to do with me, there were dog owners, there were children, and there were squirrels. And I thought to myself, isn't it amazing how your view on life really changes in the moment you start looking left and right.

So I focused not so much anymore on the breadcrumbs and the birds but more on the environment. And I discovered, wait. When we all co-shape each other's experience of this park, what would the implication be of these other people be on the likelihood of these birds adopting my breadcrumbs?

For example, the squirrels would often come and eat the breadcrumbs. And I could see how this would shy the birds away. So I decided to the next day to come with a bag of nuts. And I placed the bag of nuts in the south-east corner of the park. And you can probably guess what happened. The squirrels all gravitated towards the nuts, which was great. So that distraction was removed and the squirrels were happier than ever before.

But there was an unintended consequence. The dog owners were really upset because all the dogs ran after the nuts as well. So I decided to put some dog treats into the north-west corner of the park. That made the dog owners very happy and they all gravitated towards the dog treats.

But there was still one group of stakeholders that was in some sense interfering with my project of bird feeding. And those were the kids. So the kids were at the playground playing and having a good time. What can possibly steer the kids away from the playground? Ice cream truck! So I brought in an ice cream truck. And in that moment all the kids moved to the west end of the park.

And then something interesting happened. All of a sudden I realized that park had really fundamentally changed. Everyone was happier than ever before. We were all enjoying the park together. But the difference was that I was now able to actually go and feed the birds.That was an important learning experience for me in Evanston many, many years ago. And isn't it interesting how we always focus on the breadcrumbs and the birds and never on the park? It's especially interesting in the context of innovation because, now that I study innovations, I often go to a party and people approach me and say, Markus I have this awesome innovation in my hand, can you help me make it go viral?

Here is the breadcrumb innovation that I brought. It's a little bottle of Botox Cosmetic. The makers behind this innovation are obviously convinced that this is the best breadcrumb in the world. I can see how this is happening. In the end, isn't Botox more effective than makeup and also less painful and less invasive than plastic surgery?

So that's the breadcrumb. But what happens if we actually look at the park? And that's what we did in a study on Botox Cosmetic. So we studied Botox for over eight years to try and understand how does this innovation become successful in society. And what we found was actually pretty interesting. What the innovators think about Botox is one thing. But most of us in society think very differently about Botox.

Most of us think, does this stuff give me a frozen face? Does it have the potential to make me addicted? Is it even deadly? After all, isn't that poison and so on and so forth. So what you see here that there are many, many other actors in the park and they aren't happy. So what made Botox successful over time? Was it all about making the innovation go viral because it's so inherently better and more advanced than everything else out there. No, it was probably about creating a park where we can all age gracefully but each in their different way. So can we create a park of aging gracefully that is larger than the sum of its parts. And that's what Allergen, the company behind Botox, had to do in order to make it succeed.

So this is interesting. In innovation it seems that the breadcrumb matters less than the park. So we thought can we take this to the next level because managers...breadcrumbs, parks...they don't really listen to that kind of stuff. So we decided to study a different innovation, this time Uber. I guess many of us know Uber. It's a great way to get through the city. Ride sharing and so on. But it turns out there are also other voices that don't like Uber so much. So the question is, how do these voices affect Uber's success? And what does Uber have to do to make its innovation successful.

So we took the park and scaled it up. And we used big data and analytics to do this. It can be done because people talk in the park. And a great data point that helps us illustrate these conversations are media articles. So why don't we just take all the media articles that exist about Uber to get a better handle on the understanding people have about the park of mobility.

So what you're looking at right now is this park, Uber's park. And the surprising thing is that there are many, many conversations. But not all of them are positive. The green cluster here are all the conversations that exist about Uber that are positive. It's a great way to enjoy some luxury, it's comfortable, it's flexible. So that's not surprising. But the red stuff, these are all the voices in the park that are not happy with the presence of Uber in this particular space. So when this is anything to go by I think Uber still has a long way to go until it has created a park and a park experience that is great than the sum of its parts for everyone.

So I have a modest proposal to make today. As you are thinking about the next big thing as innovators, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and makers, try to understand your role a little differently. Don't just look at your breadcrumb and think about how you can make it go viral. Try to think about the space in which you operate and try to create an environment and an experience that works for everyone. Innovations, to a large extent, are catalysts of economic progress. But I think they are even more successful when we look at them as catalysts of social transformation.

If we want to envision a better future, and this is why I think so many of us are here today, do as I did, take a walk in the park.