Everything’s an Offer

I'm currently reading the excellent book Everything's an Offer by Rob Poynton, which explains how improvisational theatre can help enterprises can engage with and respond to the complexities and uncertainties of leading organisations into an era when creativity and change are of paramount importance. By 'offer' he essentially means 'opportunities to engage with others' which is also what many organisations are trying to achieve through open innovation.


One section in the book really stood out for me where he talks about three difference kinds of offers, namely 'vague', 'open', and 'closed'. An example of each type is as follows:

  • Vague offer – 'Help!'
  • Open offer – 'I need help with my car, it won't start.'
  • Closed offer – 'I need help with my car, it won't start, so bring yours up alongside and we'll get the jumper cables connected'

He shows how in improvisational theatre, as well as other walks of life, open offers are the most helpful and constructive as they allow the most directed and creative response. A vague offer might just result in a slightly bemused 'eh?' whereas a closed offer will result in simply a 'yes' or a 'no'. The open offer on the other hand opens up a number of options such as 'jump in and we'll try and jump start it' or 'do you want a lift'. The trick in improv is to keep offers open to allow others to engage and build upon each offer.

Relating this back to open innovation, too often we see invitations to collaborate are either too vague or too closed. For examples many open innovation programmes simply ask for 'ideas'. This is much too vague and will result in the experience such as one very large company I spoke to recently who secured a grand total of 2 ideas in 2 years. On the other hand, there are often calls for extremely specific innovations. Whilst on occasion it is helpful to be very specific about what you are looking for, it can too often stifle the potential solutions by being too detailed in your request.

In my experience the best open innovation programmes focus on the intersection of couple of unrelated themes (e.g. one sector and one technology) that create a nice creative space for innovations to spark. The best example from our practical experience would be from our VJam project we were looking at innovations that combined the rise of social media with the future of air travel. Either of these trends on their own would have been much too vague, but when taken together led to a very productive open innovation programme.

It's worth saying that any productive relationship needs to ultimately end in a closed offer, however to paraphrase Rob as he says in his book 'sharing responsibility can make your innovation easier'. So I guess what I'm saying is if you focus on the intersections and the collaborations will look after themselves.

We are currently working on a needs network where we are trying to pull together the innovation needs from people in our networks and the trick is to ask the right questions. So I'd love to hear from anyone with any specific practical examples of open innovation briefs that were too vague or too specific, or of course ones that really worked.


  1. Great post. Maybe the key is to go through each type of offer as an innovation programme progresses?
    1. Vague offer. ‘Who wants to be in my community? We can talk about the specifics later.’
    2. Open offer. ‘Now, can any of you help thinking through opportunities in my burning platform? It’s about telehealth’.
    3. Closed offer – ‘I need some technology that sends texts when ill people fall over. Anyone got one of those?
    Given that the most succesful OI projects revolve around a community of sorts, maybe this could be a useful template?

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