This is the first installment of a 3-part debate on the benefits of open innovation.
Companies are increasingly looking to radical innovation for a step-change in growth, but struggle to generate truly radical (yet feasible) ideas. In search of better-quality breakthrough ideas, most innovators are turning to open innovation. They are opening the floodgates to ideas from anyone and everyone – from employees, to customers, industry experts and beyond – usually via an online platform. The aim is to tap into the creativity of the masses and to lessen the idea generation burden on the innovation team itself.
But do more ideas automatically mean more good ideas? I don’t think so. And, indeed, one of our members reported that for every 1000 ideas submitted on an open innovation platform, on average just 1 will be truly radical. I believe this is due to several limitations of the open innovation model:
- Lacking focus. Many open innovation platforms welcome any and every idea. This is a great way to gather ideas for incremental product/service improvements and determine which have mass appeal, but is unlikely to produce many radical ideas. To boost the likelihood of generating radical ideas, you need everyone to focus on the biggest and most urgent customer problems and dedicate a lot of thought to potential solutions. It’s about depth of thought not breadth of ideas.
- Insufficient customer understanding. Generating a truly radical idea requires deep understanding of customer needs. Most employees and even most customers won’t have sufficient insight into customers’ most urgent unmet needs, especially as these are often unarticulated/unconscious needs. An open innovation platform can provide some information on the customer need, but is typically limited in how much detail it can share (due to both technology and IP issues).
- Limited room for discussion. Ideas aren’t the individual “eureka” moments we tend to think they are. In fact, they’re usually a combination of ideas and multiple reworkings and evolutions. The process of building on and refining each others’ ideas requires a greater degree of discussion and collaboration than comment boxes on open innovation platforms can offer.
- Status Quo Captivity. Coming up with radical ideas requires breaking out of the way things are and imagining future possibilities, which is hard to do alone. As a result, the majority of ideas submitted on open innovation platforms involve small tweaks to current solutions for exisitng needs and problems. Innovation teams are better at envisioning the future (and thus producing radical ideas) thanks to creative thinking excercises and knowledge of emerging trends and new technologies.
As a result of these four problems, open innovation platforms often fall short of their radical innovation goals. The result is not to lessen the burden of effort on the innovation team, but actually to increase it. Filtering through all the low-value, irrelevant ideas submitted on open innovation platforms is an inefficient use of time. Additionally, open innovation creates a tricky expectation management challenge – how do you avoid demoralizing or angering employees/customers whose ideas aren’t selected?
What’s needed isn’t an ever wider idea footprint. Instead, it’s tighter focus on high-potential opportunities, deeper insight into customer needs, and more time thinking, discussing, and building onto other ideas. The solution is almost the exact opposite of an open innovation platform: an intensive innovation workshop with less than 8 people. This is the optimal size for maximizing idea volume and debate while minimizing group-think.
Watch this space for the counter-argument next week. In the meantime, please share your views!
MLC members, for information on how to run a best-in-class innovation workshop, please see this case on Unilever’s Customer Insights Lab.