Saul Kaplan: Innovate By Hacking Capabilities

Capabilities are the amino acids of innovation.  They are the building blocks that enable value delivery.  Innovation is a better way to deliver value and is often the result of repurposing existing capabilities.  Locking capabilities into rigid organization structures and proprietary closed systems gets in the way of unleashing new sources of value and solving many of the important challenges of our time.  Innovation is about hacking capabilities.

A capability is simply the power to do something and is comprised of three elements, people, process, and technology.  You might have the capability or power to make a mean western omelet.  You possess the skill (people) thanks to hands-on training from mom, a recipe (process) handed down for generations, and a great cook top range, non-stick pan, and spatula (technology).  Hacking the capability is easy.  A Google search for western omelet recipes yields almost 25 thousand hits.  That’s more variety than a lifetime of Sunday brunches.  To stretch the analogy a western omelet capability can also be combined with other capabilities to open a cool restaurant, launch a cooking blog or cable television show, or to commercialize a new cooking utensil.  Innovation happens when we enable random capability collisions resulting in new and unexpected ways to deliver value.

Saul KaplanPerhaps a more relevant and timely example of the power and potential of hacking capabilities is Microsoft’s Kinect. Microsoft introduced Kinect on November 4th as a product extension to its Xbox franchise.  Kinect adds a very cool capability for Xbox game players by getting rid of the hand held game controller and turning players into their own controllers.  It lets players ‘be the controller’ with gesture recognition technology. On-screen menus are navigated by voice and hand waves.  Game avatars are manipulated through body gestures.  Microsoft and cool haven’t been used in the same sentence for a long time. Kinect is cool.

Microsoft predictably launched Kinect with it’s deeply ingrained proprietary product mind set.  You could buy Kinect as a bundle with an Xbox or as a separate component to attach to an existing Xbox for $150.  While Microsoft views Kinect as a product the global geek community views it as a capability.  To geeks, Kinect is a powerful capability screaming to be hacked and repurposed for exciting new uses beyond its use as an Xbox extension.  Hackers view Kinect as an interesting voice and gesture recognition platform complete with sophisticated cameras, software, and sensors with the power to detect movement, depth, shape, and position of the human body. What a bargain for only $150. It’s a hackers dream.

And hack they will.  A crowd of makers, programmers, roboticists, and other assorted and sundry geeks are having at it to explore what Kinect can enable beyond Microsoft’s initial intention.  There was even a bounty of $3,000 announced by the founder of a NYC store that sells supplies for experimental hardware projects and a senior editor at Make magazine for anyone who created and released free software allowing Kinect to work with any computer rather than just the Xbox.  Once that happens, watch out, application developers will go to town prototyping and testing new ways to leverage the capability.  It’s only a matter of time before we see new gesture based applications and platforms.  How about gesture based health care and education applications to start?

Of course Microsoft’s reaction to all of this was interesting.  Their initial knee-jerk reaction was as expected, negative.  Initially the company was caught flat-footed saying it didn’t condone product tampering and threatened legal action against hackers.  Think, Apple. However, I have to give Microsoft some credit, once market enthusiasm for Kinect became clear and sales starting taking off with 2.5 million of the motion sensors sold within the first month after launch, the company began to get open innovation religion.  OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but Microsoft has stopped threatening hackers with legal action and is at least publicly embracing hacker enthusiasm to explore new uses for Kinect.  Maybe there is hope that Microsoft can be cool again!

Hacking capabilities can unleash new sources of value and solutions for many of the social system challenges we face today.  We should encourage capability hackers and make it easier for them to work their magic. We need to try more stuff. Innovators, hack away.

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