A confession of open innovation manager

Over the years, I’ve worked with many companies that tried to apply open innovation approaches to solving their problems. Some of them have succeeded, some have failed—with the rest falling in between. But there was one common feature that all successful companies shared: they had established internal innovation programs.

Please, note that I’m not saying “centralized” or even “formal” but established, meaning that internal structures and processes were already in place to identify issues (“jobs-to-be-done”) to be resolved by innovation tools. And yes, in many cases the programs were formal, led by corporate R&D, Marketing, or a specialized innovation unit. However, I can’t remember any company that succeeded in open (“external”) innovation if it was not preceded by the adoption of internal.

Why? Among many reasons, one stands out for me. Innovation requires extensive internal business development, a process by which members of the innovation team try to “sell” new ways of solving problems to other, often skeptical and reluctant, corporate functions and units. This isn’t easy by itself; it’s for a reason innovation is called change management process.

But with the added complexity that comes with open innovation, this internal business development may become a nightmare. A small open innovation unit (it always small because open innovation teams are routinely under-resourced) is struggling to find internal “clients” to do things that sound complicated and often counterintuitive. It’s like going door-to-door around a neighborhood offering to buy a product no one has heard about.

When a newly founded open innovation team joins a larger corporate innovation function, selling its “products” becomes more organic and therefore more manageable. When the open innovation team arrives in an empty space, nothing works.

For someone who for the past 15+ years has been preaching the virtues of open innovation, this might be a strange confession to make. But I’ll make it nonetheless: there is no such thing as open corporate innovation.

There is innovation, a process deeply rooted in the corporate strategy and operations that addresses the company’s most strategic issues. This innovation has a single body one side of which represents tools utilizing the collective wisdom of the company’s employees. The other side of this body extends behind the corporate walls trying to reach out to the diverse pools of external talent.

Creating open innovation programs without establishing internal ones looks to me like a tree without roots. Or, perhaps, a house with a roof but without walls.

Image credit: Tatiana Ivanov

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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