Thursday, April 23, 2009

Open Innovation

So what we have seen so far is how innovation happens within the closed four walls of an organisation. This is known as “closed” innovation. This has how traditionally innovation has happened in most organisations in the 1990s and has been fairly successful so far.

But the topic of today’s post is a slightly different and definitely more radical way of doing innovation called “open innovation”. In an open innovation model, innovation is done by involving talent without any boundaries. So this means both talent inside and also outside the organisation. Now before you jump to any conclusions, let me clarify that I am not talking about outsourcing the R&D department. Far from it. I really believe that innovations and R&D are the main pillars of any organisation. But having said that, we also need the pillars to be as strong as possible.

Still not sure? OK. Let us go back to our previous case study example; typically any R&D or innovation project will have the following three categories:
  1. Areas that you have worked on
  2. Areas that you have not worked on and so are new
  3. Areas that somebody in the organisation have worked on but needs digging to get to the right person.

Now the first category is the simplest of your worries and so let us not go into that. However categories 2 and 3 need your attention. Let us consider Category 2 in greater detail. In our previous example, you attacked this problem by getting your team to research and “google” around so as to get knowledgeable in this area. But is this the best way to approach this? A more intuitive method is to get the experts in this area to give you solutions in this area leaving you to focus on the other areas. I am sure you are wondering “What about Intellectual Property and how do I ensure that any patents are not being infringed upon etc”? Agreed there are some challenges around this but I am sure it is not so complex that your legal team cannot sort it out. All it needs is a firm understanding on how these issues are going to be handled and these needs to be agreed with the solver community upfront.

From your perspective, this solution ensures that your innovation project gets the best possible boost by involving experts in their domain on a need basis.

Of course, there is one other huge factor which needs to be worked out which is the reward mechanism to entice the experts to work on this. There are no rules around this but you will be able to find the “sweet spot” with some experience along with some googling around as well.

OK. Assuming you have reached so far, you must be wondering what next? Well couple of important steps which you need to be doing:
  1. Ensure that you have the necessary buy in and sponsorship from the top management for your initiative.
  2. Ensure that your team is geared up and receptive to new ideas which will come from the outside world.

So why are these two important?

Well, the first point is very important since you may well receive some disruptive ideas/solutions on the way forward. Unless you have the top management buy-in and support, you will find that you are not able to implement the ideas or solutions.

The second is equally important since the team which are evaluating these ideas/solutions from outside need to have an “open” mind. Otherwise they will be quick to find holes and throw all the ideas/solutions out of the window. Now, I am not saying that we should not view any idea/solution from outside critically. In fact, I would say, it is quite the opposite. We should review it multiple times. But what is important is that they should be viewed with an approach of “making it work” or a “can do” attitude. Of course many of these solutions may need to be tweaked to suit the organisational needs. However it is far easier to reject it upfront without even thinking through. Hence we should avoid this mindset and embrace the “open innovation” mindset instead.

So in summary, we briefly looked at how “open innovation” could happen in innovation projects and some of the important factors required for these projects to succeed.

Please feel free to write in with your thoughts and experiences. I would love to hear your thoughts on the same topic.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Innovation Project - A Case Study

Let us look at how an innovation project happens today with an example case study.

Imagine for the sake of the case study that you are the Head of R&D in your firm.

10 a.m, Monday morning

Your boss calls you for an urgent meeting. He talks about an important and high profile R&D innovation project which needs to be completed on a war footing by your company. This project is very important to the future strategic plans of the company and so it is very important that this project is done well. With this introduction, your boss hands this project over to you. He gives you 1 month’s time to complete it and is happy to commit all the resources that you need to complete it successfully.

11 a.m Monday morning

After the whirlwind events of the morning, you settle down and start reading the high level project brief to understand the details of the project and mentally start putting together the resources that you need to complete it. You classify the project needs in different categories:
  • Areas that you have worked on.
  • Areas that are new and so need to be researched to get more information
  • Areas that you think somebody in the company should have worked on but you are not sure. So may need more digging.

And so on................

12 noon Monday

Having completed reading through the high level project brief, you decide to call for an urgent meeting of the team members who you believe can help you with this project. You discuss your plans on how to approach this project and assign some immediate tasks for the different categories you made earlier. For the areas you have worked on, you give names of people who have worked earlier on this and try to contact them to help in this project. For the areas that are new, you ask your research associates to “google around” and collect as much information as possible. For the areas that you think somebody should have worked on but are not sure, you start digging up your contacts list who may be able to help you while also searching through the company intranet and knowledge base for more information.

1 Week Later (3 weeks from the deadline)

You call for a meeting to review the work done by your staff. Here is a list of some of the challenges identified by the team.

  • Experts in certain areas are distributed all across the company in different locations/time zones making collaborative efforts a nightmare.

  • Lots of information available in the internet through googling but major challenge is to classify and pick up the most useful information (especially when you are working against the clock)

  • You get lots of leads while working through internal contacts but it takes time and lots of refinements before we can get to the relevant person with information.

And so on......

You continue working your way through these challenges and try to get priority levels for your project raised through your boss. Hopefully this should help getting people within the company to respond to your project needs but you do realise that things will not change overnight!!!

3 Weeks later (1 week from the deadline)

The heat is on!!! You can see that your team is scrambling around and doing their best. But you keep wondering – is this the best way to do this? Surely this model is not sustainable. You make notes to discuss with your boss after this project is completed on this issue. But for now – the short term deadline makes you try to help your team in the best possible way through their challenges.

D – Day

The project is well received and your boss is very happy with the project work and the deliverables from your team. You heave a sigh of relief and are quick to pass on all the credit to your team who have been literally slogging from Day One and have worked through and surmounted most of the challenges faced.

After the heat has settled down and things are a little better settled at work, you start thinking – How can we improve the current process to handle such critical projects? Can we approach this in a different way?

Sounds familiar???

So in summary these are the typical characteristics of a innovation project:

  • Requires a wide range of experts who can be brought together to collaborate to achieve a goal at very short notice.
  • Requires access to cutting edge research or areas that may not have been worked on before.
  • Time critical nature of project where the difference between failure and successful launch can be very small and can dictate whether you are a market leader or follower.

Some of the challenges you could face in these scenarios:

  • You need the best minds to work together and compromising on this is not even an option. So to give you a realistic chance of success, you need to ensure this.
  • You need the best possible tools to collaborate and help your team focus on the task at hand. At the minimum, you should be able to collaborate across different time zones and regions.
  • Since time is of the essence and experts are always in demand, some mechanism should be in place to reward and motivate the team and prioritise this project request.

What are your experiences? What are your thoughts on how this can be improved further?

Stay tuned for a different approach to solve this situation.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Innovation - A brief history

Innovation and the most common picture that springs to our mind is a group of scientists labouring away in a corner hidden away from the outside world trying to come up with the next big invention that will change our lives and worlds forever. It is not very difficult to understand why this is so. We have countless examples given from past history where scientists working more or less alone have come up with some path breaking inventions (Thomas Edison and Aristotle are two who stand out for me). But I strongly believe that the days of working alone and hidden away is all but over. In today's world which is highly interconnected and truly global, the only way to work is together and using the global expertise of all staff in the best possible way. In a series of articles, we will explore how we can do this and what can enable true innovation without any boundaries. Stay tuned.....

Innovation Today

So what has changed in the recent past that is making innovations which are driven solely by people working separately a thing of the past. Frankly I can think of three big changes responsible for this situation: These are:
  1. Internet and today's interconnected world
  2. Globalisation
  3. Communication Advances

Briefly let us look at all three and how they have started to impact our innovations:
  1. Internet and today's interconnected world - This started off with the internet and access to a huge amount of knowledge and information but is now spreading to social networks and communities of interest where experts can come together and exchange meaningful information. Look around and you will see interest groups being formed in various fields - not just cutting edge topics but even day to day experiences.
  2. Globalisation - Truly I don't need to explain more on this. All of us have in one way or other been impacted by the globalisation trend. Today it is very common place to expect to work with people in different regions and time zones. It is not an choice any longer on whether we want to use global resources or not. In many situations it is the only way of working. Of course there are both advantages and disadvantages to this. But let us not get into that. Frankly the point I am trying to make is that you cannot ignore it any longer and it is in your interest to embrace it and see how you can take advantage of it.
  3. Communication Advances - Again one of the main factors for the globalisation trend is the communication infrastructure. Today it is possible to feel as connected to the outside world as possible whether your team is in New York, Japan or India. You even have choices of doing this via teleconferences, video conferences or even online web casts.

So what does all this mean to the way innovation is done today? My feeling is that companies are only starting to realise the various opportunities available to them to take advantages of these trends. For Eg: The buzz word today is about having many distributed R&D labs in different locations and try and see if you can localise the research to enable companies to offer better products for a particular region. Here again the teams need to work together to ensure that they are not re-inventing the wheel and also take advantage of the work done by some of their colleagues in other regions of the world.

So in summary - we looked at some of the recent changes which will start to affect the way we are working today (especially when it comes to innovation). Next we will look at some of the challenges facing us today and talk about a few solutions as well.

Please feel free to write your feedback and any comments on this topic or anything related.

Until next time!!!


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