Collaborative Comes Before Open

Collaborative Comes Before OpenEach Thursday at 12pm EST (US) there is a Twitter chat using the hashtag #innochat.  Recently the admirable duo of Sarah Caldicott and Drew Marshall led us through a discussion entitled “Innovation stalls without Collaboration”.  You can find the framing post and tweet output here.  We didn’t address the topic of Open Innovation per se but it set me thinking.

Open Innovation seeks to expand innovation potential by accessing ideas, technology, products or routes to market from outside a company’s borders.  There are many ways to do this, from technology scouting through competitions to crowdsourcing.  Much has been written about the different options available to companies, which includes competencies, but it seems that there is relatively little about the mindset and approach.

The key word is collaboration.  As Stefan Lindegaard pointed out, some executives look at Open Innovation as hiring more people from the outside and taking venture equity stakes.  This is not a collaborative approach.  The emphasis is still on keeping control and retaining everything inside.   So how should you approach Open Innovation if your company does not have an inherently collaborative company?  The answer is – wait.  The focus should be on introducing collaborative ways of working first.

The barriers to collaboration can be divided into structural and cultural.  If an organization is structured so that country, regional or divisional groupings effectively have full control and decision-making power over the resources at their disposal, that territory is likely to be the limit of collaboration.  This may be just right for your company, but your expectations for collaboration should be set by the boundaries fixed in the structure.

Within such divided designs, further structural issues can occur.  Collaboration on all issues but particularly innovation, needs facilitation by supra-structural initiatives such as multi-functional teams, good project management and corporate centres of excellence (CoE).  The latter is often found in large global companies, tasked with bringing together people from different divisions and geographies.  Even though the power base doesn’t change, these CoE initiatives build networks, create awareness and strengthen collaboration.  If you don’t have them, you’ll struggle with collaborative innovation.

Cultural issues are probably the biggest barriers to collaboration for innovation.  They include “not invented here”, or NIH syndrome, which often manifests itself in a belief that one particular part of the company is the best and could not therefore implement something invented elsewhere, whether internally or externally.  It also induces entrenched positions aimed at defending a functional position instead of the interests of the company and the specific project.

Fear of failure also inhibits innovation collaboration.  People are less willing to take risks and break out of their silo if they believe that not only will they suffer, but by extension they may also damage the reputation of their department.  This may be somewhat of a generalization, but companies heavily focused on control often find it difficult to accept anything unexpected, and struggle with tolerance of failure.

Open Innovation needs a collaborative mindset throughout each part of the company involved in the project.  So even if you can find an externally facing and collaborative group of people to implement Open Innovation, if the rest of the company remains predominantly closed, suspicious and distrustful, the Open Innovation projects will fail.  They will hit a roadblock sooner or later.

So what can be done to seize the opportunities offered by Open Innovation?  I’ll start with what not to do.  Please don’t start a major initiative like a external prize competition or an open technology search.  Unless you have a very clear path to market that overcomes the structural and cultural blockers to collaborative innovation, it is doomed to failure.  Next, please don’t tell the outside world that you are now into Open Innovation, and expect x% of your innovation to come from it.  That’s the equivalent of Fire, Aim, Ready.

The solution will not come overnight, which is why action must be taken quickly to set the change in motion.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Reduce the power of the “robber baron” domains by changing structure.  One option is to centralize key resources such that divisions are forced to collaborate.
  2. Introduce supra-structural elements such as multi-functional teams charged with delivering innovation for a defined piece of business.
  3. The top team must “walk the talk”, and be seen to collaborate on C-suite issues.  They must drive their direct reports to work with other parts of the company.
  4. Use social media tools to help connect the company, communicating internal technology challenges, linking common interest groups and creating awareness of what exists internally.  There are lots of systems available to do this, including Yammer, Talk Freely, Innocentive at Work etc
  5. Redefine your HR assessment systems to specifically include collaborative mindset.

This is just a short list, and there is more you could do.  But please start, and when you’re making good progress internally you’ll be able to open up to the outside world – and step change your innovation performance.

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Kevin McFarthingKevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.

Kevin McFarthing




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No Comments

  1. John W Lewis on March 22, 2013 at 9:46 am

    This is excellent, Kevin! You make many good points about a topic which is central to the culture of organisations.

    The points you make about the need for collaboration would apply to any area of activity. One of your gems is:
    “your expectations for collaboration should be set by the boundaries fixed in the structure.” However, in most areas, some limited form of inadequate communication through or over those boundaries is achieved. This is mainly because it is seen to be necessary, but it could hardly be called “collaboration”.

    By contrast in the case of innovation, not only does collaboration require communication to be more flexible, but also that communication is not seen to be necessary! For both those reasons, it does not cross the boundaries at all. And, as you describe, the requirements for open innovation are even more demanding.

    Great stuff! Thank you.

    • Kevin McFarthing on March 22, 2013 at 12:31 pm

      Thanks for the kind comments, John. Your point about communication is spot on. Without a need to communicate as “business as usual”, it relies on individuals with initiative.

  2. Sarah Miller Caldicott on March 23, 2013 at 9:59 am

    This post is spot-on! I think it’s especially important that you’ve called out “contests” and open searches (etc) as potential red herrings for companies seeking to move toward open innovation. Organizations often get seduced into thinking they are “being collaborative” through these practices, and widening the pathway to being open as well. In fact, they can inadvertently thwart their efforts on both fronts if no focus on collaboration has been established prior.

    Contests in particular can concentrate attention on the work of a small body of employees rather than ensuring that collaborative engagement and collegiality is a part of the broader landscape to begin with. It’s great when small teams succeed…but without understanding why their efforts represent success through collaboration, the learning will be lost on the wider organization.

    Thanks again for your insightful comments…and appreciate the shout-out!

    Keep innovating,

    • Kevin McFarthing on March 27, 2013 at 6:43 am

      Thanks for the kind comments, Sarah. Like many topics in innovation, Open isn’t necessarily easy, that’s why easy fixes should be regarded sceptically.

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