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Open Innovation: You Don’t Have All Of The Answers

Posted on March 9th, 2016 by in Chemical R&D


Most of us spend a lot of time thinking about what’s coming next. We get caught up trying to optimize the products and processes we already have, or working out how to bring our ideas of what’s next into reality. We innovate. Whether it’s a prescribed part of your job role, or just the way you think, there’s a certain draw to innovation that’s difficult to avoid.

There’s a dangerous temptation when thinking through new ideas though. It can be tempting to keep our ideas to ourselves until they’re fully formed. And so we often keep them inside. We don’t let them breathe. There is often a fear of exposing our ideas to colleagues, other teams or other organizations. But deep down we know that innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We need to draw others in to help capture, shape, refine and evaluate our ideas. Communication and sharing of ideas are key elements of any effective innovative setup.

We Get It Wrong Most Of The Time

One of the main benefits of sharing our ideas with others is exposing them to critique. Other people, and other organizations, bring their own knowledge and experience and are usually able to offer a different perspective. It often surprises me how easy it is to become attached to an idea and to be convinced of it’s value.

Ronny Kohavi, a Partner Architect at Microsoft, has this to say about innovation in software:

“It is humbling to see how bad experts are at estimating the value of features (us included). Despite our best efforts and pruning of ideas, most fail to show value when evaluated in controlled experiments. The literature is filled with reports that success rates of ideas in the software industry are below 50%. Our experience at Microsoft is no different: only about a third of ideas improve the metrics they were designed to improve.”

Although Ronny is talking about software, where innovation or features are relatively easy and cheap to test, the principle holds true across all engineering disciplines. We are not always good at accurately estimating value, especially when evaluating our own ideas.

Open Innovation

Perhaps a more collaborative approach to innovation is one way to tackle the problem – one where we can refine ideas more quickly and fail fast when we need to. “Open innovation” is a phrase that’s been coined to describe a model for a more collaborative approach to innovation. Henry Chesbrough, who came up with the term, describes Open Innovation as “the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation, respectively.”.

And so, whether it’s bridging the gap between industry and academia through collaborative projects, or simply involving others who would normally be on the outside of your innovation process, sharing ideas early can be a win-win.

It’s perhaps a little counter intuitive that drawing on and sharing with external sources, can speed up internal innovation, but the Open Innovation approach can be surprisingly effective.

So I’m wondering, who will you share your next idea with?

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