8 simple ways NOT to succeed at open innovation

1. Forget to communicate with the outside world –

It sounds almost too obvious, but alas it isn't. I've seen many a large organisation get so wrapped up in their open innovation process to the extent that they completely forget to tell anybody external about it thereby rendering the entire endeavour pointless. Don't forget to talk to people about what you are doing or are looking for, through as many communications channels as possible.

2. Banish your critics –

Your critics can be your most valuable collaborators. I've seen one large company act totally out of all proportion when their PR department discovered a single negative blog post (with negligible readership) about their open innovation initiative. They wanted to exclude said blogger from the process, which would have almost certainly led to more negative coverage. In the end we persuaded them to engage in a conversation which was challenging but ultimately hugely beneficial.

3. Focus on 'what?' not 'who?' –

There is a sequence of activities that occur in open innovation that cannot be bypassed. Namely you start with lots of conversations, some of which will lead to a smaller number of some kind of relationships. Importantly trust needs to be earned and takes time to develop. Eventually, some transactions will follow that create value.  So when starting with open innovation, as well as asking 'what is the idea/technology/opportunity?' it is crucial to also ask the question 'who are the potential collaborators and how can we get to know them better?'.

4. Misunderstand the difference between hierarchies and informal networks –

Hierarchies work primarily through 'command and control' whereas informal networks work through 'trust'. Both are crucial but mixing the two can be fatal. Don't do it. All complex innovation challenges now involve hierarchies – which are multiple hierarchies interwoven with multiple informal networks – and we need to understand them both. According to social network guru Karen Stephenson, at any point in time, informal networks trump hierarchy, however over time hierarchies trump informal networks. In other words informal networks have power but hierarchies preserve longevity.

5. Fail to suspend judgement –

According to psychologist Stuart Sutherland, the inability to suspend judgement is  one of the most prevalent aspects of irrational. And yet suspending judgement and being open to new ideas and opinions is also a vital component that allows unconventional and innovative ideas to develop and grow. Most of us like to think of our selves as rational beings and yet why can so few of us suspend judgement. Try it…you never know what might happen?

6. Mange risk down to zero –

Open innovation is not about selling certainty, it's all about managed uncertainty. Open innovation is all about shared reward and without stepping outside of your comfort-zone it will be very difficult to drive the process forward. Procter and Gamble estimate that only one in a hundred good ideas make it to market whether they come from within or outside, but external ideas will often have greater potential. Of course you should manage your risk but be very careful not to overdo it.

7. Death by analysis paralysis –

The single biggest thing that squashes most innovation is a lack of momentum which kills all hope of any getting an innovation getting to market. All too often this happens for valid reasons like seeking consensus around multiple departments. It can be really helpful to have a clear and quick process agreed up front, and preferably published to the outside world so there is little chance you can renege on that commitment, whilst recognising the need to be flexible if necessary too.

8. Overestimate your own brilliance –

As Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems so eloquently once said 'Not all the smart people work for you'. We estimate that 99% of the solutions to all of your innovation problems are already out there somewhere. And yet most organisations focus 99% of their innovation efforts on inventing new stuff. We would argue that to be successful at open innovation make sure you network as hard within the organisation as outside. So go and find the smart people and listen to what they have to say as ccombining different perspectives is key any innovation.


  1. Thanks for the nice post Roland. And thanks to Tim (timkastelle.org/blog/) for pointing me towards it. I like your emphasis in point 4 on matching the governance system with the nature of the organisation. Interesting stuff.
    One suggestion I’d make from my experience is that it’s useful to recognise that informal networks are about much more than trust. Given this, another way of framing the relevant governance approach might instead be:
    “Hierarchies work primarily through ‘command and control’ whereas informal networks work through ‘social mechanisms” like trust and status”.
    I know this is a small change, but since there’s a huge body of work within sociology and economics that investigates how these mechanisms operate we would then have a much wider variety of tools at our disposal when trying to understand and solve innovation challenges.
    The work I am thinking of here would range from the work of Emmanuel Lazega’s to Elinor Ostrom.

  2. Thanks for the comment Sam and I absolutely agree of course. I was massively oversimplifying to make a point but couldn’t agree more that informal networks have many subtle rules and mechanisms above and beyond trust. The links are new to me so i’ll check em out. Thanks again. Roland

  3. Hi Roland, great post and I’d add a nineth – trying to create a “systematic” process for generating valuable innovations. They start with software for process and knowledge management and sinmilar facades never get around to the innovation part. Innovation is non-deterministic; which means very hard to make systematic. Very connected to your points #4 and #6.

  4. Thanks Kevin – Couldn’t agree more that there is a lot of systematic procrastination tools out there. But it’s important to bring open innovation into the mainstream and with that comes process. I think you can significantly increase the chances of creating new value by having a clear, public, ambitious, and super flexible process in place that people buy into upfront.
    Alec – thanks. Not sure where I heard that first but it’s a great phrase isn’t it, and all too accurate alas!

  5. thanks Alexander. Glad you enjoyed it. I really like what you and Tim are doing with Futureagenda too and have tweeted about it a couple of times and am keen to be involved. Good luck with that. Regards, ROland

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