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The Concept

Timothy Rayner:

"What do I mean by ‘gifts’? The English noun ‘gift’ has two meanings. In the first sense, a gift is something that is volunteered free of charge. If I give something to you, I don’t expect payment for it. I might be getting paid to give things to people; I might, for example, work for a charity that distributes items to people in need. But my gift to you is free of charge.

Notably, it doesn’t follow from the fact that gifts are free of charge that they have no economic value. In many indigenous and non-indigenous communities, gifting is used intentionally to forge tribal solidarity and to create the conditions for a continuing exchange of gifts. While no money exchanges hands, givers are rewarded in terms of reputation and social status, in addition to the self-esteem that they derive from their efforts.

Anthropologists call these social structures: ‘gift economies’. A thriving innovation culture is a kind of gift economy. It is a self-perpetuating engine of value production, fueled by the exchange of gifts.

In a second sense, a ‘gift’ is a natural talent or ability. We say that someone is ‘gifted’, in this sense, when they display an innate capacity for excellence in some art or pursuit. Mozart, who mastered the violin and was composing sonatas by the age of five, was an incredibly gifted musician. But we don’t need to be incredibly gifted to have gifts. All of us are gifted in some way. The way to discover your gifts is to embrace diverse challenges and see how you perform. Some people discover their gifts early, while others spend their lives searching for the conditions under which they are able to express them. Generally, human beings are abundantly gifted, with an innate talent for language, an ability to think and reflect, and a capacity to focus our energies creatively, investing them in works of science, art, and literature.

To create a thriving innovation culture, we need to give people the opportunity to express their gifts." (


Timothy Rayner:

"How many gifts does it take to create an innovation culture?

The answer is four. In the past few years, I have had the opportunity to explore various collaborative communities, from hacker communities through to design and start-up cultures. I have learned in the process to distinguish four kinds of gifts that contribute to the collaborative work of all these communities. Each community values and organises the four gifts differently depending on the style of collaborative work they employ. The art of creating a cultural environment for collaborative innovation hinges on understanding what kinds of gifts are important for different innovation processes, and how to solicit these gifts from participants to the best effect.

The four gifts are: [1] personal gifts; [2] gifts to collaborative work; [3] gifts to customers or users; and [4] gifts of context, time, and space.

1. Personal gifts

These are the innate talents and abilities that individuals bring to collaborative work. To create an innovation culture, it is vital that people feel able to disclose these talents and abilities and apply them creatively.

2. Gifts to collaborative work

Second are the gifts that participants volunteer to a collaborative session. While these contributions should ideally reflect participants’ personal gifts, it would be counterproductive to insist on this. To sustain the creative energy of a collaborative session, participants must be encouraged to contribute whatever ideas and resources they have on hand, irrespective of whether or not they reflect personal gifts. The essential thing is that people feel motivated to give what they have to the session at every moment.

3. Gifts to customers or users

Innovation culture can’t exist in a vacuum. It derives its power from a shared focus on creating value for the customer or user, offering them something that changes their life. Typically, this ‘something’ comes at a price. But the people who create it must see it as a gift, otherwise there is little chance they’ll produce anything great.

Many commercial innovation teams suffer from a meanness of spirit. Swamped by their workload, hemmed in by management, and creatively stifled by leaders who can’t see beyond their quarterly reports, they never think of their work as ‘giving’ to the world, and their solutions suffer for it.

Truly great innovation teams are out to make a difference. They are not just creating products, they are co-creating a better world, and there are few things more inspiring than that.

4. Gifts of context, time, and space

Great leaders are gifters too. The leader’s role is to establish the environment for collaborative innovation through gifts of context, time, and space. This means, first of all, establishing an inspiring vision and mission for collaborative work. An inspiring vision and mission gives creative teams a meaningful context for their work. If the organisation is driven by a noble cause, like the struggle to cure cancer or the effort to develop a new renewable energy solution, innovation becomes a noble pursuit, and participants feel that they can aspire to greatness.

The second thing that a leader can contribute to collaborative work is the gift of time. Counterintuitively, this doesn’t mean ‘all the time in the world’. The most successful innovation processes involve setting strict temporal constraints on teams and challenging them to see what they can produce in this time. Working to a temporal constraint inspires teams to pull together and invest 100% in the creative activity. If the session fails to produce a valuable result, the team resets the stopwatch and starts again.

The third thing that a leader can contribute to collaborative work is the innovation space itself. More than just a physical space, kitted out with tools, this is a social and cultural space as well, a space in which people feel comfortable throwing around ideas, making mistakes, and showcasing their gifts. Without a social and cultural space that supports these activities, it can be hard to convince people to commit to collaborative work, and impossible to create the kind of gifting dynamic that drives continuous innovation.

The innovation space is the ‘original gift’ that enables the other four gifts to come into play. By leading with a noble cause and a judicious set of temporal constraints, great leaders make space for inspired creation.

In forthcoming posts, I will discuss how the four gifts framework can be applied in the context of co-design, agile development, and lean start-up work." (

The Book

Book: The Gift. Lewis Hyde.


Daniel Pinchbeck:

"In his great book The Gift, Lewis Hyde contrasts our modern market economy with the gift-based economies of tribal and indigenous cultures. He writes, “The desire to consume is a kind of lust. We long to have the world flow through us like air or food. We are thirsty and hungry for something that can only be carried inside bodies. But consumer goods merely bait this lust, they do not satisfy it. The consumer of commodities is invited to a meal without passion, a consumption that leads to neither satiation nor fire.” The gift, on the other hand, renews the communal bond, and requires reciprocity as well as trust. Hyde writes:

"The gift moves toward the empty place. As it turns in its circle it turns toward him who has been empty-handed the longest, and if someone appears elsewhere whose need is greater it leaves its old channel and moves toward him. Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us." (

See Also