6 ways to make open innovation easier

A former colleague of mine recently called me up saying that one of her partners was struggling with open innovation and asked what advice I could give them. We had quite an interesting discussion which I will attempt to reproduce below. Here are the six points which in my experience can make open innovation easier:

1. Enable and trust the community to do the heavy lifting

We recently ran a customer co-creation programme with E.ON where we were initially a little overwhelmed by the number of ideas submitted and felt pressure to respond to them all. The trick here was to sit back for a little while and let the community do the heavy lifting. i.e. have voting or commenting mechanisms on your online community which allows other members of the community to sift out the best ideas and let the cream rise to the top. Of course you still need to dip in occasionally if the community has mistakenly got carried away with creating ‘a perpetual motion machine’ but actually this seldom happens, and it’s about enabling and trusting your community to do the right thing.

2. Find your top 1% and really understand what motivates them

We’ve read all the literature on lead users that talks about the top 1% of your community being the innovators. However were rather amazed to see this theory bourne out in practice recently, on another project, in that literally just over 1% of the community became actively engaged and become extremely creative and innovative. However when surveying them about their motivations afterwards, they were not primarily motivated by the prizes on offer, rather by the opportunity to share and build ideas about a topic about which they cared about.

3. Start at the end

A few years ago we ran two very similar innovation competitions targeted at small companies, one with P&G and the other with Orange. In both cases the companies committed publicly to a 90 day decision making period as to whether to proceed with the innovations submitted. In the case of P&G we waited until we’d shortlisted the submissions before approaching the relevant people across the business, which ended up taking too long and we lost momentum. In learning from this, when we repeated the project with Orange we had all the internal stakeholders lined up and engaged before we launched, which took time, but make the whole process quicker and ultimately much more commercially successful.

4. Ask open and interesting questions

Last year we ran another project with Orange which was about crowdsourcing social media applications. The initial challenge was targeted at social entrepreneurs, charities and technical developers and so was slightly complicated in scope and we started with a very difficult challenge. However through much discussion and debate we managed to boil down the challenge to the following question: “How can people do good in 5 minutes or less using their mobile phone?” which is much easier to understand and really seemed to capture the imagination of the target audiences. The trick here is to ask open questions that are both not too broad but also not too specific, but instead aim for the sweet spot between these two extremes where there is room to be innovative.

5. Set ambitious targets (+ publish them widely)

In almost all of our open innovation projects we tend to set big financial targets together with our clients as a statement of intent. In addition we usually agree a tight timescale and publish it widely. These two things really help in so many ways. Firstly, by setting the financial target you get buy in from the client but are also able to discount many ideas, not because they aren’t good enough, but because they aren’t big enough. Secondly, with regards publishing the timescale this is both helpful for external partners but essential to minimise the temptation within a large organisation to move the goalposts (i.e. death by a 1000 meetings) and thereby loose momentum which is so crucial for successful collaboration.

6. Develop your peripheral vision

Most of the organisations we work with have a competitive landscape that is growing and changing very quickly. And it’s safe to say that their competition in the future is increasingly likely to come from leftfield, either from a rising star or from outside of their sector of expertise. Turning this on it’s head I therefore also think this means that the next big collaboration opportunity can often come from outside of their sector or field of expertise. These types of collaborations are by definition non-core but have the benefit of being unlikely to cannibalise each others primary business so you can build trust much more easily, and so are more likely to succeed. Therefore I think we all need to develop better peripheral vision to spot those opportunities that crop up in the slipstream.


In summary, open innovation is not about getting something for nothing and is definitely lots of hard work. It is one of those slightly deceptive strategies that sounds obvious and simple when you first hear about it but becomes more difficult and revolutionary the more you dig beneath the surface. However hopefully you find these 6 points above helpful and they do make it a little easier. As always I’d be interested in your perspectives or thoughts.


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