What does it take to break the mould?
Open innovation brings challenges. One of the greatest is for innovation practitioners and delivery managers to begin by breaking their own mould, before changing their organisation’s traditional ways of working. There is, as the saying goes, ‘no gain without pain.’
Open innovation brings with it a toolbox of methods and processes to inspire a new way of delivering innovation. We have been testing some of these with charities through the Open Innovation Programme. There is clearly reluctance for innovators in the third sector to break the rules.
It is happening all around us in other sectors. Apple challenged conventional user experience norm and re-invented simplicity, Amazon broke the rule that books were meant to be read in hard copy. Private sector organisations can provide inspiration for charities when it comes to embracing and successfully implementing open innovation.
This is not about reckless experimentation or changing things for the sake of it, but more about a process of discovery within the organisation to understand where the boundaries and flows exist between internal innovation and external intervention. The objective is to identify where the gaps exist and then create a strategy to close them. Successful open innovation happens when you make the most of the best people, skills and capabilities inside your organisation and those outside it.
This is not about reckless experimentation or changing things for the sake of it, but more about a process of discovery within the organisation
Clearly it’s not quite that simple. There are many challenges to be found on your doorstep. You will need to communicate across internal silos before building bridges with the outside and challenging the ‘not invented here’ syndrome that can stop external ideas being taken up. There are common situations and barriers in most organisations that hold us back from making the most of external expertise, whether private, public or charity.
Building bridges to extend networks
If you want to make the most of open innovation it will involve building bridges to encourage coordination and collaboration between many different departments within and beyond an organisation. By operating in silos, departments inhibit their capacity to leverage the power that networks can bring. Yet, the most innovative ideas are often formed at the fringes where these networks intersect. So it is important to begin by building bridges internally and then connecting these to the outside world to create your own innovation network.
Be clear on what you are setting out to achieve and then sell this vision internally to build advocacy amongst key stakeholders. Once you have them on board, communicate your offer outside your organisation by inviting supporters, beneficiaries and open innovation delivery partners into the innovation process. Your role is not limited to building these bridges; you have to get people to walk on them too.
Not invented here
There is often unwillingness to accept ideas and innovation that have originated externally. Maximising the impact of open innovation requires this mould to be broken and for agents inside an organisation to change their view on external contributions. We need to recognise the truth of Bill Joy’s, Sun Microsystems co-founder, famous quote “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” This is true for all organisations; recognising it and being empowered to draw from that wealth of external expertise is vital in creating this transition. Here are six steps to create a culture of ‘proudly found elsewhere’:
1. Begin by identifying gatekeepers and decision makers and gauge their appetite to work on new ideas with people outside their organisation.
2. Explain to them problems and unmet needs that open innovation can solve and fulfil for the organisation by providing fresh perspectives or applying new methods to longstanding challenges.
3. By opening up to new forms of expertise and insight using networks, demonstrate the value creation that open innovation brings in terms of the giving of time, money, resources and assets.
4. Open up your innovation process early; invite external participation, foster collaboration and be prepared to respond openly and constructively to challenges or new insight.
5. Establish credibility and capability within the organisation by testing prototypes in public and build momentum and interest in innovation by showing how it can make a difference.
6. Re-define what success looks like for an innovation project – it often goes far beyond the creation of a new product or service, highlighting factors such as new intelligence about what doesn’t work, internal culture change, network creation that brings new skills, contacts or income.
Antibodies exist within organisms and organisations. Used by the immune system to identify and neutralise foreign objects such as bacteria and viruses, in organisations these agents can sometimes cause harm by killing off good ideas too early in the process. They become known by peers and across departments for protecting territories. This antibody effect can also be observed when organisations are subject to major transformational change, creating a state of uncertainty and crippling decision-making. While you may not be armed with a full set of immunisations to stave off harmful antibodies, here are some tips to help you neutralise them as an organisation evolves:
- Operate under stealth mode to begin with; don’t over claim on behalf of your project, begin working on subtle changes to working processes such as introducing prototyping. This helps with finding a champion inside the organisation who will support you with an initial budget, time, resource and tolerance of risk.
- Invite external expertise to share what they would do if they were in your shoes and then use this new knowledge to inform and exercise your decision-making.
- Understand key internal processes to effectively critique or change them, learning how to better navigate your way around organisational antibodies or convert them to become advocates through involving them in making changes.
Follow the evidence, wherever it leads
As part of the Open Innovation Programme, Mencap delivered a vision to create ‘Kids for Good’ – a fun, easy and safe way for children to raise sponsorship from friends and family online which would transform giving within schools. The project received an early set back when the delivery partners – a leading UK online sponsorship company –wasn’t sure the innovation would bring them sufficient return on investment and decided to focus on a market they knew well.
The Mencap innovation team went back to the drawing board, this time with the aid of The Giving Lab, an agency that supports charities to innovate. Together they faced internal hurdles with the ‘Not Invented Here’ syndrome and organisational antibodies surrounding an existing digital product that ‘Kids for Good’ was perceived to compete with. Instead of backing away they set out to breakdown the value flows and discovered that the existing product was a loss leader and a new approach to innovating was required.
Using an evidence-based approach, The Giving Lab worked with pupils, parents, teachers and Mencap Youth Ambassadors to uncover the enablers and barriers to giving in schools. A fundamental insight was uncovered: schools are cash based by choice, there was no appetite for a digital platform.
Mencap looked at various ways to tackle this. They quickly realised the insight meant returning to the drawing board on their tactic to increase giving in schools, and step back from the programme to re-group; a courageous and ethical decision. Through the open innovation and evidence gathering process they were also able to stop further losses from an existing digital innovation.
Along the way, they discovered a raw diamond in appreciating the impact Mencap Young Ambassadors can have with regards to engaging with schools. This serendipitous discovery is now paving the way to build bridges internally and externally, while changing the way Mencap approaches the innovation process from the outset.
They would never have found this insight without looking beyond organisational boundaries; first with a delivery partner that didn’t work out, secondly with the innovation agency The Giving Lab, creating an aspiration for their future work.
Through the example of Mencap, we can see that working with and understanding those both inside and outside your organisation is a crucial first step to building an open innovation culture. Although the product wasn’t developed, this was a successful process of learning and network creation. So be brave, break the mould, and enjoy building your next big idea.