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Are you (culturally) ready for open innovation?

June 29, 2011

There has been so much (good) talk about the usefulness of open innovation.  It allows you to capitalize on information and ideas from company-external groups like your customers, vendors and even competitors.  But open innovation will fall flat on its face if you don’t first have an effective communication culture WITHIN your organization.

In previous posts, we’ve discussed ways to identify your workplace culture, and how to start connecting across teams to aid workplace innovation.  Today, we’re encouraging you to take a good hard look at your communication processes habits and whether they will help or hinder an open innovation initiative.

Consider these scenarios.

Industry trend sparks idea for new product/service line

You are a middle manager in a business services company.  You have 5 direct reports and your boss’ boss is the vice president of your operations department.

Last week, one of your direct reports emails you a report about the latest trends in your industry.  The report mentions several ways in which your competitors are harnessing the power of customer feedback to develop new services.  When you were lazing in the backyard over the weekend, an idea popped into your head for a service offering that could separate yourself from the competitive pack and create new growth opportunities in an untapped market segment.  You also know of a small company that already offers a key component of this new service, and that partnering with them will help you get to market much faster.

You get into work on Monday inspired and excited by this new idea.  You decide to schedule a short meeting with your boss to discuss its feasibility, and you hope to form a cross-functional working team to start developing and testing a framework for the new service.

It’s been less than 5 minutes into your meeting, and you’re feeling deflated.  Not only has your boss dismissed your idea, he has instead berated you for wasting time on something that is not core to your role within the company.

Board of directors wants 3 innovation projects launched this year

You are the COO of a consumer products company.  Growth has been steady but slow in the last 6 quarters.  You hold the greatest market share in your industry with a stable of old and highly-trusted products, but competitors have been gaining ground on you with more interesting and relevant products that truly solve their customers’ needs.

In the last meeting with the board of directors, you have been told in no uncertain terms that the company needs to be more innovative, and soon.  Protecting your turf is no longer just a question of re-branding, promoting or selling your existing product line.  You need to capture younger customer segments and be more mindful of the needs of modern living.

It’s Monday morning, and you have one week to come up with a plan of action that will infuse your staff with the urgency and enthusiasm it takes to make this internal shift happen.  You know that there are pockets of creative thinking in your company, and that some of your employees have strong connections to customers and companies with potentially valuable insights.  The question is, where and how do you begin to harness these insights?

Some (initial) solutions

Both scenarios seem different, but they point to the need for fundamental cultural shifts in the workplace.  The trouble is, such shifts take a long time, and sometimes the marketplace won’t wait for you to get your act together.

With this in mind, here are a couple of ways to start changing the tide:

  1. It takes tremendous clarity of vision, purpose and follow-through to implement cultural change.  If you are a senior executive and don’t have the time or tools to articulate this vision, get the right help externally.  There are many communication and/or change management experts out there.  Do your homework though – many offer only one piece of the puzzle e.g. they’ll craft a communication plan but won’t stick around to ensure it’s implemented properly.
  2. If you are a middle manager with a good idea, and if senior management is too old and slow to budge, consider setting up your own internal taskforce to develop and pilot your idea.  Use your powers of persuasion, or align yourself with someone who can express your vision clearly to potential collaborators.  Seek the more progressive senior executives in your midst to get their blessing for initial pilots or rollouts.  If you truly believe in your idea, there will usually be a way to bring it to life.  The one BIG thing to keep in mind is a solid understanding of your company’s strategy and business goals for the year.  Be sure your idea will help achieve those goals, not detract from them.  Whenever you’re discussing your idea internally, frame it in the context of the overall strategy and goals.  The chances of buy-in will increase dramatically.
We’ll return to this topic in future – there’s so much more than can fit in one post!
In the meantime, what do you think about the scenarios and solutions above?  Do you agree with them?  Do you have any personal stories to share around trying to communicate an innovative idea in a culture that doesn’t innately encourage it?
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