The internal challenge of open innovation

I tweeted the other day that "ironically the biggest challenge of open innovation seems to be internal". This tweet was prompted by several conversations with people within large organisations with a responsibility for open innovation.

In talking to them it was clear that they spend most of their time trying to persuade, cajole, tempt or force their colleagues/managers to partner with external people or organisations, despite it being part of the organisational strategy there remain powerful structures or forces, both formal and informal, to prevent this happening.

My colleague David Simoes-Brown likes to say that open innovation professionals are on the 'fringe of the fringe' of their organisations. By this he means that innovation teams, if they exist, tend to be fringe departments as they are about disrupting or evolving the status quo, and open innovators are on the fringe of the innovation departments.
And this is not necessarily a bad thing, but cements the challenge of building credibility within, before or in parallel with building credibility outside.

The open innovation professionals whom i've worked with who are most successful work just as hard, if not even harder, to network within their organisations to find the right people to be able to make a deal happen once they've sourced one externally.
And tools like twitter are, in part, so exciting to me because they form a wonderful shortcut into organisations bypassing existing channels or opening up entirely new channels of communication that didn't exist previously.

As ever i'd be interested in other peoples experiences or views of the internal barriers to open innovation.


  1. Hi Roland:
    Great post, Roland.
    Your observations indicate a fairly serious resistance to open innovation within some corporations. This is not surprising, in and of itself. It makes me wonder if companies are doing enough to incentivize and reward external collaboration, so that people will have more desire “to do” than “not to do”.
    Best regards,

  2. Thanks for the comment Michael. Your comment made me wonder whether I’d expressed myself too strongly but re-reading my post I stand by what I said and I guess I did mean to portray a serious resistance. However it’s worth adding that this resistance is more often down whole traditional organisational model which is geared towards achieving economies of scale through internal means, and therefore needs rebuilding or retraining to encompass outside actors. I agree incentives play a part, but always watch for unintentional outcomes. And incentives need to be both inside and out too…I could go on 🙂

  3. an interesting post, but I think there are nuances that need to be recognised. I used to work for a global pharmaceutical company where open innovation, in the sense of both external collaboration and bringing in ideas from the outside, was valued at least as much as internal innovation competency. We recognised that there were more experts in the world than just us, and we couldn’t create the value required by being proprietorial (egotistical?) about ideas we used.
    Maybe open innovation is more familiar territory to companies who already are on the cutting edge of innovation, as opposed to those who struggle with incremental change?

  4. There’s sometimes some truth in this observation from Clay Shirky : ‘Employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse.’

  5. Hi Mike – thanks for the comment and yes I don’t doubt your former companies focus on external opportunities, and certainly many organisations have priorities open innovation in recent years, however my point is that the organisation model tends to geared towards inward rather than outward focus so it’s going to take time for that 180 degree shift in perspective. I think open innovation is ironically sometimes easier for companies that don’t pride themselves necessarily as innovators as they are perhaps more used to ‘shipping’ innovation into the business rather than inventing/creating themselves.
    James – that’s rather amusing but also rather sad. I think it’s slightly different though – more like parents trying and failing to get hip with the kids, but not for want of trying.

  6. Astute post.
    I’ve had an ‘ideas’ site running publicly for three months. We’re at the phase where ideas are starting to be implemented (and need to be implemented in order to maintain the site’s credibility).
    Speaking from this context, I see two behaviours:
    – some ‘internals’ are ready and eager to discuss the ideas and the implementation with external parties via the website. Others are extremely reticent to do so, citing the potential to publicly expose weaknesses, and a reluctance to ‘dumb-down’ conversations by engaging external ‘non experts’
    – when the site was initially set-up and there was little immediate prospect of ideas being implemented, it temporarily became a repository for the good ideas that no-one had the resources or inclination to implement. It was, in effect, a place for good ideas to die.

  7. Hi Freddie. Thanks for the comment and interesting perspective. Which site is it? Is it the Symbian ideas site? Both behaviours are all too common alas – the first can only be tackled through experimenting with openness, starting small and building on successes. The second though requires a process and some momentum (= hard work) to avoid the ideas graveyard. Good luck with your site. It looks great btw. R

  8. Hi Roland, sad but true? Certainly when it came to the newspaper industry which is what Shirky is talking about. But I think he’s also alluding to the fact that it’s no good just putting innovation in a box. Which is maybe where open innovation comes in…?

  9. Following James and Shirky, the converse of not having an innovation department is not no innovation at all. Open innovation could and should work by having an open and innovative culture running through the organisation, such that all departments are encouraged to share thinking and ideas – across departments, with partners and, sometimes, with competitors. Realistically, that won’t happen without the intervention of an ‘innovation department’ but, too often the Catch-22 means that this department does the innovating while everyone gets on with the day-job.
    Maybe we should think of an innovation department as a ‘campaign team’ – running an innovation project (internally) for a fixed period of time, after which they cease to exist, having built an innovation culture internally.

  10. James – as every Clay speaketh the truth 🙂
    Graham – I love the idea of a crack innovation squad. More than anything innovation needs momentum to thrive and this is a great solution. My colleague Jonathan Crowley wrote something along these lines a while ago which I liked too:
    Paul – thanks for the link to your post, which i’ve only had a chance to scan i’m afraid but it looks interesting. Did you get to hook up with James Gardner at the barcamp at the weekend?

  11. Good stuff.
    Credibility is built on performance.
    Convincing people to innovate requires showing them what it can do.
    Until they experience the value they can’t understand it.

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