Could open innovation make your ambitions take flight?

innovation flight

Cecilia Thirlway writes about innovation and creativity for open innovation platform Solverboard. In this article, she discusses why she thinks tech companies need to become more agile to keep up with competitors.

The driverless car is one of the key ambitions of our age: the first team to achieve a commercially viable version will have advanced mankind by an incremental but significant step, as well as bringing an entirely new product to market.

Google’s very public tests (and mishaps) on the roads of Mountain View, Austin and Kirkland make it clear that the search giant is actively pursuing this ambition.

Recently, Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked to confirm whether Apple was working on a similar project, but refused: despite the journalist asking the question highlighting the number of automotive experts recently recruited by the company, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk calling the project ‘an open secret’ based on the number of his staff who have gone to join Apple.

Commercial innovation has always relied on secrecy around its R&D, keeping ideas, developments and methods carefully protected from the competition. But this secrecy has to some degree always been an illusion.

As the driverless car example shows, it’s extremely difficult to maintain secrecy about what you’re working on as people join and leave your company, particularly if you need people with very specific skills. Willy Wonka, arguably one of fiction’s great confectionery innovators, only managed to protect his R&D by firing all his human staff, hiring Oompa-Loompas and never opening his factory gates to the outside world again.

While Apple is busy recruiting automotive experts hand over fist, Google is already testing its driverless car and coming up against some interesting challenges. Most of those challenges will be familiar to their automotive experts, but a few are entirely new – such as the ethics of accident prevention – and might require a different set of skills and experience to solve.

There is no guarantee that Google’s crack team of automotive experts can solve those challenges – so how could Google deal with them?

Use open innovation for surprising results

Open approaches to innovation have a long track record of success.

Open challenges have been used to achieve ambitions as diverse as preserving food, the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris, and cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Often the solution to challenges come from unexpected quarters.

Nicolas Appert was a confectioner before he created his method of bottling food, while the winner of the Exxon Valdez challenge, John Davis, had a background in construction, not oil, water or environmental protection. Innovation, particularly the sort that turns industries on their heads, has often required a degree of lateral thinking or knowledge applied from other industries, neither of which is necessarily found by hiring the obvious experts.

The pioneers of powered flight, the Wright Brothers, ran a bicycle business before coming up with their flying machine.

These kinds of innovations often have an altruistic or progressive element to them – John Davis’ motivation was apparently more about preserving the aquatic environment than it was about the reward, while powered flight was a long way from being a commercial proposition when the Wright Brothers first lifted off.

Open challenges have often been about advancing the cause of mankind, rather than coming up with a market-leading type of chocolate.

This year, Bill and Melinda Gates’ annual letter challenged high school students to think about how we might bring carbon emissions down to zero, calling for ‘an energy miracle’.

Be open – and let solutions come to you

But the principles of open innovation don’t just have to apply to mankind’s global challenges.

Precisely because solutions and innovation can come from anywhere, commercial organisations are starting to recognise the value of openness, and dropping the veil of secrecy that shrouds their R&D operations.

Denys Resnick of NineSigma discusses transparency in a recent article for R&D magazine, saying: “Increasingly, though, significant players in their industries such as General Electric, Mondelēz International, Johnson Controls and Siemens have incorporated OI [open innovation] as a core process – not just for discrete situations. Instead of cracking the doors to R&D just enough to allow the rest of the world to peek in, they’ve flung them wide open.”
Open Innovation roles are showing up more and more often in organisation charts – watch Lucia Chierchia, Head of Open Innovation at Electrolux, discuss her role in her recent Tedx talk.

What these organisations have realised is that the benefits of open innovation – recently outlined by Open Innovation platform Solverboard on our blog – far outweigh the potential risks of transparency.

Whether you prefer completely open platforms, or use an enterprise-specific platform (such as Solverboard Enterprise) to access talent from outside your organisation and build co-creation communities, open innovation can dramatically shorten the innovation cycle.

This allows organisations to bring products and services to market more quickly, as well as develop new revenue streams from ideas that would otherwise have gone to waste. And openness about your ambitions can prompt people with solutions to approach you proactively, resulting in significant rewards on both sides.

In the 2016 Global Innovation Barometer, 77% of executives surveyed reported a financial boost from collaborative innovation.

If Apple was more open about its automotive ambitions then perhaps, like the Wright Brothers’ Flyer, its driverless car would be the first to take off.