Open Innovating Sectors and Countries

Open innovation is great at the beginning, when you are having new ideas and making new connections, and great at the end when you are making money and/or creating new value, but generally pretty awful in the middle, when you have still have a fragile proposition and only a fledging team coalescing around it.

“Open innovation is a U-shaped Process.” Paul Vanags, Oxfam

We have found this to be true at the best of times and even working with some of the most innovative companies in the world. The likelihood of never getting past the middle of the ‘U’ is very high. And that particular risk increases exponentially when you increase the number of organisations involved. So what do you do if you want to, or need to innovate across a whole industry sector or a national economy?

Over the past few years we have been privileged to work on several separate projects where we have been working with an entire sector and in other cases with a significant chunk of a national economy. In both of these cases, there is usually a need for innovation in the sector or country, demanded and coordinated by governments (through regulatory and/or purchasing pressure) who then seek to instigate, coordinate and catalyse innovation across the sector or economy.

Based on this varied, rich and complex experience we have learned a number of valuable lessons, which are specific and interesting to industrial scale open innovation across sectors and countries, as follows:

1. Create time and space to listen and learn

It is really important to listen intently to everybody first – if you want to innovate with a sector or an economy you need to engage people where they are now and listen and learn to the language they are using and the challenges and opportunities for innovation they are raising.

2. Beware of the plenary vortex

With any cross sector or countrywide initiatives you are bound to have some big set piece events. Beware of the plenary vortex where the ‘great and the good’ (usually the self appointed spokespeople) take it in turn to speak in monologues. Instead break into small groups around common interests and expertise and invite everybody to contribute and build on each other’s ideas instead.

3. Rehearse and refine the joint elevator pitch perpetually

If the sector or economy can’t convey what they are doing and how it’s different to what went before then any industrial scale open innovation initiative won’t last very long. Rather set a big hairy audacious goal and a tight timescale and let both drive momentum and alignment as you go. The more you share and declare you elevator pitch the more it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy and pretty soon you’ll be past the point of no return. This perpetual pitching also really helps build a common language and culture, without which innovation isn’t possible.

4. Think even bigger

Don’t squabble about the slices, build a bigger pie. Only once you’ve parked your competitive instincts, at least for a short while, and avoided the opportunity to rip somebody else off, does true collaboration really begin. Think big, share more and bake a bigger pie together. This means making a clear on what you are willing to share with others in your industry and also what you can’t and the reasons why.

5. Make your partners look good

It’s a cliché to say it but the more you can give, the more you stand to get in any sector or economy wide initiative. And the sooner you help build the profile and opportunities for others, the more likely they are to reciprocate in different ways. Create a process or platform that incentivises this recognition for the best collaborative behaviors, and not just for the best ideas. That way everybody ups their game and so everybody benefits.

6. Get ready to teach the gorillas the quickstep

With any industry or economy there are bound to be lots of vested interests at stake and the bigger the players the more they stand to gain but also the more they also could loose as a result. Therefore be ready to take two steps forward and one step back, almost all the way. It can be frustrating at times but it’s important to recognize that it’s all part of the process of getting engagement and refocusing upon what’s important as you go.

7. Embrace uncertainty and ambiguity as your friend

When you are working with an industry or economy it’s never going to be simple so avoid the detail trap and try to bank agreements as they arise and allocate responsibility to tackle disagreements out of the room if necessary. And try to keep your options open at all stages to allow for new opportunities and avenues to arise.


Open innovation across sectors and countries isn’t easy. In fact it is incredibly difficult and one of the most important and biggest challenges of early 21st Century business and government. However in an increasingly competitive, globalized and networked world, is it also increasingly necessary to collaborate more, even with those with whom you traditionally competed. We hope these lessons learned captured above are helpful and as ever would welcome your experiences and thoughts as to how we can all innovate together more effectively.

By Roland

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  1. Great advice Roland. I guess an important consideration is how you can manage the political motivations of all the parties involved so they are all able to work towards a common goal.

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