Collaborate when you innovate

    Michel van Hove

    In spite of, and likely because of, the recent downturn in many markets around the world, innovation is still high on most company agendas, with organisations increasingly focused on future growth. However, in crowded marketplaces where consumers are looking for enhanced value, organisations are finding it more and more difficult to realise this growth. One reason for this is that whilst they are looking to venture into new directions, they often end up sticking close to their core business with the often corresponding low rates of growth.

    In this first article of a two part series we examine collaborative innovation at the front end of the innovation process. We examine how bringing in new voices from outside your organisation can help to drive breakthrough innovation and push beyond the typical incremental thinking. In a second article in early 2012 we will look at the backend of innovation, i.e. how to use collaborative innovation to develop and experiment with new opportunities.

    Looking beyond your organisational boundaries

    There are many reasons why organisations fail to provide enhanced value e.g. not developing compelling enough perspectives at the front end of innovation; the wrong criteria for selecting the most promising ideas; expecting unrealistically fast returns on breakthrough innovation; and failing to experiment with opportunities that fall outside of core competencies – however this can only partly account for the phenomenon. There is also something else at play here.

    Most innovation programs still only make use of internal expertise and hence find it difficult to generate insights and ideas that are outside of the current market or organisational paradigm i.e. those which are not strongly connected to the company’s current position in the marketplace. And even if ideas happen to be ‘beyond the core’ they usually get filtered out in the later stages of the innovation process because the criteria that the company’s executives apply are biased to maintaining the status quo.

    Is there another way for companies to ensure they take a broader perspective and allow themselves to innovate beyond their core operations?  We think so…collaborte.

    Collaborative Innovation goes beyond developing and launching new products and services together with partners that your company is currently working with. True collaborative innovation requires a willingness to let go of preconceived notions of how to innovate and a desire to learn from the outside, both in the generation of new insights and new ideas, and the development and implementation of new opportunities.

    Collaboration at the front end of innovation

    The first step for companies to break out of simply extending their core business is to incorporate different perspectives that could lead to different ideas. Companies should be looking to develop a proprietary perspective on how trends and consumer/customer needs evolve in the future. But it seems that even this in itself is not enough to push ideas beyond the core when those different perspectives are generated and acted upon by the company’s employees alone. They often use the current business context and end up generating ideas that stick close to the core. Companies cannot solely rely on analysing market research, putting it through the company lens and highlighting gaps in the current portfolio.

    Diverse points of view need to be collected from a much broader area than the sector the company is currently operating in if it is to innovate beyond the core. Direct external input from people from other sectors, backgrounds and experiences is needed to collectively develop those perspectives and increase the chances of finding breakthrough ideas.

    Our experience shows that organisations that include a broader range of direct external input at the front end have a better chance of delivering significant innovations that are outside of their core business, and that are viable and valuable in the marketplace.

    Implementing a collaborative approach

    Our experience is that true external collaboration is best served via carefully facilitated events at the front and back end of the innovation process. We call these events CoLabs and at the front end we use two separate events – the Insight CoLab and the Ideation CoLab.

    These events vary from single day to week long events with up to 50 participants where the networking is as important as the output. They are attended by carefully selected internal and external experts who provide the right mix of expertise and broader perspectives related to specific innovation challenges.

    Designing and executing CoLabs is something that requires careful upfront planning and executing the following steps:

    Designing the CoLabs – understanding Aiming Points

    Before engaging external input a unifying theme or themes are required that help the participants prepare, and then stimulate and focus their thinking. Therefore we need to find aiming points related to what the organisation is trying to achieve and at a level of abstraction that allows for a much broader conversation with a wider range of participants i.e. the discussion should not have an ‘industry/market’ focus. If we consider, for example, a food company the aiming point wouldn’t be directly linked to food but could be something like “changing family structures”, a theme that isn’t about food but clearly could allow opportunities to emerge. The aiming points or themes also allow us to identify early, which people to engage.

    Designing the CoLabs – location and ambience

    This may seem trivial but most people have experienced meetings in dull airport conference rooms because of practical and logistical considerations. Such environments can sap creative energy. The environment is a key ingredient to a successful event and adds to increasing the quality of the output. We work with clients to choose the best location e.g. if the aiming point is about emerging economies clearly it is advisable to locate the events in such a location; if it is about Urban Living then clearly the location should reflect that.  We also work with clients and venue operators to select the best environment such that space, light, equipment, and natural features are used to best advantage and create as stimulating an environment as possible.

    Recruiting the CoLabs – engaging with external experts

    A lot of preparation goes into creating the right mix of participants.  We find that the best participants at the Insight CoLab are those that are able to bring a real breadth of perspective, such as, relevant academics, technical experts, ethnographers, futurists, lead users, extreme users, semioticions, regulators etc, etc. These experts are selected to cover the themes of the CoLab from different angles. Everything is designed to create the maximum chance of developing new perspectives.

    It is possible to simply interview experts individually and learn their perspectives but in our experience more can be gained from having these people engaged in group conversation. In preparation and final selection we have conversations with potential candidates to learn 3 things 1) does the participant have the required expertise b) can they articulate their opinion and c) are they willing to engage in open discussion and explore new directions.

    Insight CoLab – Developing New Perspectives

    The Strategos approach is based on a tried and tested number of key principles:

    “listen to new voices and build new perspectives”

    “to get to new answers you have to ask new questions” and

    “diverge and then converge”.

    These principles underpin our design of the Insight CoLab. Prior to the event participants are asked a brief set of simple questions to start the ball rolling and get them engaged and thinking about the themes early on in the process. The answers are synthesised around our selected themes and used to prime the participants at the start of the event.

    In the event itself, the participants explore, through several theme based discussions, how these might develop over time and specifically what we can learn about the impact and relationships with new consumer/customer behaviours, market and technology trends, dimensions of competition and societal changes. We are not looking to reach a consensus but more to stimulate a creative process where analysis (how does what I know apply to this theme) and synthesis (how can this be combined with other perspectives in new ways) happen at the same time and new thought provoking perspectives can be generated. This is where we diverge with the team and explore many new directions.

    Once we have explored a broad range of perspectives the team is asked to converge on the ones that they find the most interesting and compelling and show the greatest potential for change. In Deep Dive sessions these are further explored and challenged to arrive at a strong proprietary perspective that is shared by the group. We use these insights to drive idea generation and ensure that ultimately opportunities are not just random ideas, but that they are built on a foundation of validated insights shared with broader group of external experts.

     Ideation CoLab – Generating ideas

    At the level of generating ideas the approach is, in principle, the same. However once again we have to think carefully about the mix of people, most likely they won’t be the same group of people who participated in the Insight CoLab. To ideate around the final set of insights we have to balance the need to diverge but at the same time focus on our innovation challenges. Increasing the diversity within the group helps put the insights into different contexts that lead to a broader range of ideas but still relevant to our challenge.

    Here, the external participants’ roles are different in that they are used to stretch the company’s thinking and push them in new directions as well as help to see how ideas can be grouped into larger areas of opportunity that drive future value and can become the basis for innovation platforms or domains.

    Collaborative Innovation In Practice

    Strategos and its parent company Innovaro have a long track record in using this approach with our clients and we have learned along the way how to adapt it to specific client needs and innovation purposes. Some examples;

    Shell Technology futures – impacts of future technology development

    Shell was a pioneer in developing Co-Innovation approaches.  Back in 2003, Shell realised that it needed an external perspective on the technology landscape and worked with Innovaro to bring in external viewpoints. The result was its renowned Technology Futures Programmes, the output of which was a detailed set of critical pathways of technology developments and their potential impacts on our society. A summary of the results was published on their website and internally this was used to explore opportunities well beyond their core business of fossil fuels.

    Finding growth opportunities for a telecommunication provider outside its sector

    Recently Strategos has supported a major telecom operator in finding new opportunities for growth. Hampered by low growth rates in their core business the aim was to find opportunities beyond that core business. Throughout the innovation process we engaged external experts, which resulted in ideas that were more stretching and ultimately easier to detail into value propositions that made sense. Senior executives were more prone to accepting new directions for the company to explore and experiment with because the opportunities were based on a solid foundation of insights and involvement from external experts.

    Developing new perspectives around food related themes

    For a global food ingredients supplier Strategos designed and executed a programme with CoLabs at the heart. During the programme a group of experts explored 4 food related themes and developed new perspectives that were used to generate ideas, which were then synthesized into a set of distinctive new growth platforms.

    Closing Thoughts

    Apply co-Innovation only when and where it makes sense

    There are a few simple criteria that indicate whether or not it makes sense to collaborate:

    • Are you looking to develop new perspectives outside your business?
    • Is the time horizon beyond what you can see today?
    • Are you looking for innovation opportunities beyond your core operations?

    If you answered yes to these criteria then chances are high that collaborative innovation could help you achieve better results. Not in all cases does this approach make sense and framing the innovation challenge up front is critical to the overall design of any innovation programme.

    The principle is simple, but there are a few challenges along the way

    While the principle is simple, executing it is more difficult since there are several issues to consider. Selecting the appropriate themes for the Insight CoLab is critical because it is the basis upon which you will decide who to ask to participate.

    In all the CoLabs getting the right mix of people is important for a successful outcome; not only people’s backgrounds and specific domain expertise but equally their ability to engage in open conversation with others is vital to its success.

    Engaging external participants is often a selling process; they have to see the benefit for them and not feel that their participation is a substitute for expensive advice. At the front end this means that the co-creation needs to be about perspectives that all can, and want to, use for their own benefit.

    Collaborative Innovation: a recipe for success?

    Collaborative Innovation, depending on the situation can help stimulate a company to develop new perspectives and as a result consider a much broader range of opportunities; explore directions that are completely new; and make sense of opportunities that fall well outside their zone of comfort. At the same time we have to be mindful of the special conditions that apply when engaging external people. If the project is interesting enough then people will donate their time. And if they feel they can take as much as they give, then the CoLab approach can be very successful.

    Strategos and Innovaro have tried and tested this concept many times with clients across a wide range of sectors. In our experience Co-Innovation works well both from a participant and a client perspective. If correctly managed it is a win-win!

    Of course it doesn’t stop with idea generation and in the next article we will pay attention to the backend of the innovation process. Once we have selected our growth platforms we have to explore how to use collaborative innovation to detail the business models around specific ideas and execute experiments that allow us to learn how to venture into these new directions successfully. Learning about how to fine-tune our value proposition, build new competencies and find the appropriate economic model without falling into the trap of applying our current business model thinking is critical to go beyond our core business.