10 Do’s & Don’ts for Open Innovation Competitions

We were asked recently by a new client what our top 10 Do’s and Don’ts are for running open innovation competitions, based on our experience including the UBS Future of Finance Challenge, Unilever Foundry Ideas Challenge, Colombia CO4 Open Innovation Competition, and Ordnance Survey GeoVation Challenge.

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Therefore below is a synopsis of what we’ve learned over the past 10 years about how to effectively share risk and reward with external partners, through successful open innovation competitions:

  1. Do Start With Why – Many organisations say they want innovation but don’t really mean it. And external partners can usually see through the rhetoric pretty easily if that is indeed the case. So before launching any kind of open innovation programme be very clear about why you are doing it. Is it genuinely about finding new ideas, or new partners, or new technologies? Or is it really a glorified PR campaign, or even a stealth change management initiative? It’s fine if it’s all of those things so long as you are clear on the what’s in it for you, and more importantly what might be in it for your partners (see point 7 below). 
  2. Do Know Your Audience – Be clear about who you think you want to work with. Is it your employees, or current suppliers, or new suppliers or end customers, or universities, or other brands. Do not attempt to engage all audiences simultaneously as their needs and their capabilities vary enormously. Once you know who you want to work with, spend time getting to know them, ideally first hand and face to face. Failing that online or via secondary research. Create Personas of your different audience types and get under their skin. This really helps further down the line when you are in the middle of the u-shaped innovation process and the going gets tough (which always happens at some point).
  3. Do Ask Interesting Questions – Goldilocks famously wanted a porridge that was not too hot, and not too cold, but just right somewhere in the middle. Similarly many open innovation programmes ask questions that are too broad (e.g. solve climate change please?) or too narrow (e.g. solve this micro technical requirement please?). However the art of successful open innovation is about asking interesting and open questions somewhere in the middle, just like Goldilocks, that are broad enough that they are understandable by a wide range of potential partners, but also specific enough that you know once they have actually been solved.
  4. Do Equalise the Incentives – Open innovation only really happens between equals. If all of the dice are loaded in favour of one partner then collaboration can’t happen. Rather all we mean is that both sides need to have equal “skin in the game”. They both have to want and need it to succeed and yet what each partner values is inevitably different so the equation can consist of different elements on both sides. So we have learned that it’s best to incentivise and reward collaboration (not competition) between all participants. The ultimate situation is where risk and reward are shared equally between partners. And whilst extrinsic incentives such as investment is essential, it is also not as important as intrinsic rewards of autonomy, purpose and mastery either.
  5. Do ‘Airlock’ the IP – Intellectual property (IP) is one of the first things people ask about when embarking on an open innovation initiative for the first time. Small organisations are concerned about their idea getting stolen. Large organisations are concerned about being sued. Our best advice is to keep the lawyers out of the room until you have something meaningful to haggle about but also to create a safe space for intellectual property to germinate and grow, and ultimately be protected. We call these Innovation Airlocks and the likes of Unilever Foundry use them very successfully to enable external entrepreneurs to safely pitch and develop their ventures.
  6. CO4Don’t Go It Alone – The sooner you can move beyond “my idea” to “our opportunity” the better. However we are, especially in the West, rather ego-centric so use co-creation tools and techniques to bring in the creative contributions of everybody and then have a facilitator to drive the process forward. So eliminate the ego, make your partner look good and achieve more together. And having a facilitator who is responsible for the process and has no axe to grind but can neutrally act in the interests of all parties is invaluable and yet is often overlooked.
  7. Don’t Get Greedy – It’s the ultimate cliche but it really is true in open innovation that the more you put in the more you get out. Open innovation is absolutely not about getting something for nothing, rather is usually about foregoing short term gain for longer term benefit. Only once you’ve avoided the temptation to rip somebody else off, does true collaboration begin. For instance in the UBS Future of Finance Challenge, we set aside over 300+ hours of mentoring support for FinTech start-ups from UBS business and technical experts. It was invaluable for the start-ups to get this level of support however it was just as valuable for UBS to spend time with these entrepreneurial tech innovators from whom they also learned a huge amount. 
  8. Don’t Stick to the Speed Limit – Whatever you are trying to do, it’s almost always too slow. Set an ambitious timeline and then halve it. Or at the very least stick to it. The biggest reason why open innovation initiatives fail is due to a lack of urgency and momentum which means everybody looses interest. Remember, with open innovation you can’t directly control the actions of your collaborators (like you may be able to do more easily with an internal initiative) and so you need to build and sustain the excitement and energy, which can only be achieved by moving fast.
  9. Don’t Move the Goal Posts – Nothing erodes trust faster than introducing new requirements or delays part way through the process. And yet large organisations are brilliant at apparently inventing another hoop to jump through, just when you thought you’d already jumped through them all. One large telecommunications company that we worked with committed to making a decision on an opportunity arising from a small company within 90 days, and yet 24 months later the deal still wasn’t signed, despite multiple international trips (all at the small companies expense) to seal the deal. I’m pleased to say that it all worked out in the end but often it doesn’t and so if you publish a timeline then please stick to it.
  10. Don’t Just Think Locally – You are only every one step away from virtually anything or everything. However the art of innovation in the 21st century is not about who has the best inventive and creative skills. Rather it is about who is the best detective and who is the best collaborator (i.e. who can find integrate new opportunities). But whilst the best ideas, technologies and people are increasingly accessible globally, it’s best to start small, and build from who you know locally. For instance the UK’s mapping agency Ordnance Survey run annual GeoVation Challenges which include a weekend “camp” where all of the selected finalists come together to develop their propositions together and to learn from each other. 


So that’s it. Our top 10 do’s and don’ts for your next open innovation competition in 2016. We hope you found it useful and we wish you well with your next competition. Having said that, if you want a little help from an agency network who have learned all of the 10 lessons above repeatedly, and have the scars to prove it, then please do drop us a line.


Image 1: UBS Future of Finance Global Finals Pitch

Image 2: Colombia CO4 Challenge Definition Workshop

Image 3: Ordnance Survey GeoVation Water Challenge Banner


  1. Another DO, if I may – DO use open innovation platforms (such as Qmarkets, for example). They save you a ton of time otherwise wasted to nothing. Instead of chasing ideas, it funnells all of them to one place.

    • Thanks for your comment Jerald. And yes I absolutely agree. Platforms such as Qmarkets can be a very helpful tool if managed and integrated effectively. Roland

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