How Collaboration Turbocharges Innovation

Given the vast number of articles written about open sourcing, open innovation models and idea management, it seemed appropriate to stop and take a look at the origins of this phenomenon and get back to the basics. Why open the innovation process? What is there to be gained by working together? Can collaboration and competition go together? Howard Rheingold and Charles Leadbeater tackle these questions and more in their TED Talks, speaking about:

The Era of Open Innovation

and The New Power of Collaboration

In this blog post, we’re going to use both talks to discuss how collaboration turbocharges innovation.

The many different ways to innovate

The common misconception of innovation is that it comes as the result of lone geniuses working in their garages or highly trained researchers in isolated research labs. Yet as Leadbeater argues, it’s not only special people in special places coming up with special ideas that can be innovators; there are many different ways to innovate.

In truth, innovation more often than not occurs as the result of an open, collaborative exchange. This exchange can occur between anyone, whether it’s scientists, sales teams, engineers or end users, who contribute to the process by suggesting enhancements, requesting new functionalities, describing their needs or even taking an existing invention and applying it in a new way to solve their problem. With the examples below, we’ll see some of the many ways that innovation comes about as the result of collaboration.


Collaborative innovation in action

Some collaborative innovations occur because the end users are responding to a need or challenge. As early proof of the power of collaboration, Rheingold takes us all the way back to the first nomadic hunters who decided that it would be better to work together, hunt larger prey and share the spoils rather than go it alone. This collaboration resulted in an important innovation, a new and improved hunting process. For a more contemporary example, Leadbeater discusses the creation of mountain bikes, which were created by enthusiasts in California who weren’t satisfied with the existing bikes at the time. Today, mountain bikes account for 65% of bike sales in the USA, a category entirely created by the collaborative innovation of end users.

Other collaborative innovations come about because an invention was made, but its full worth and use was not yet defined. For an example of this, Leadbeater refers us to the SMS, which he says was created by mobile telephone companies without knowing its use. Instead, it was the subscribers that innovated the use and pushed it from a basic and possibly useless invention to the pervasive technology it is today.

Finally, cross-fertilization is often a result of collaborative innovation and occurs when experts get together and realize that a technology or discovery originally developed for one project can be used for another. NASA developed technologies are another good example of this, as many of them have been commercialized and applied to consumer products. Just to name a few:

  • A special coating developed to protect astronaut helmet visors was applied to eyeglass lenses, making them scratch resistant.
  • To help astronauts get around while on the moon, special boots were designed to put a spring their step while also providing ventilation. This technology has been used to improve athletic shoes.
  • NASA developed plastic foam padding for aircraft seats in order to lessen the impact of landing, which can now be found in memory foam mattresses such as Tempurpedic.

L’Oreal’s ammonia-free hair dye is another relevant example, which was the result of applying research into what makes apples turn brown to hair dye.

It, therefore, comes as no surprise that more and more highly competitive companies are opening their sourcing and communication channels to improve their innovation capabilities and to create better products in less time.

The best way to innovate

How can we sum it all up? Collaboration has always been a powerful source of inspiration for innovation and by opening the innovation process to more sources, great innovations happen more often and companies can make their own luck. Leadbeater concludes similarly, noting that the organizational models that mix open and closed innovation are especially powerful and that the people who understand them will be very successful. When companies use open sourcing and cooperative efforts, they can share the risks and take advantage of a common resource pool to multiply their productive resources.

Conversely, without open innovation many companies make the mistake of reinforcing past successes and discouraging any risk taking. This attitude limits the opportunities for radical innovation and companies end up with low-risk, low impact innovations that barely keep pace with the competition instead of disruptive, game-changing innovations. Even worse, they run the risk of being blindsided by a disruptive technology coming from one of their competitors.

Finally, collaboration isn’t about charitably sharing your own resources with your competitors. As Rheingold discusses, highly competitive companies such as IBM, HP, Sun, Eli Lily and Toyota are leveraging open sourcing and demonstrating that there is a type of sharing that is in their self-interest.


Managing collaborative innovation

Many of Leadbeater and Rheingold’s conclusions align with our 10 years of experience in innovation and alliance management. Today’s markets undergo change rapidly, with new products, innovations and competitors rising and falling constantly. Staying ahead requires enterprises to be capable of effectively scouting and identifying which ideas, technologies and projects might be an opportunity and which might be a threat.

We have found that the most successful innovation programs feature social collaboration, internal and external sourcing as well as the workflows and project management capabilities necessary for managing it all. Essentially, these programs open communication and encourage the spread of ideas and information both within the enterprise and its ecosystem, all while providing the tools to turn the most promising opportunities into fruitful deals and partnerships.

The best companies strike a balance between internal and external approaches, taking the best innovations from wherever they are found.

Check out these great TED Talks and others here:

Charles Leadbeater: The Era of Open Innovation

Howard Rheingold: The New Power of Collaboration

To check out other NASA inventions that have been applied to everyday products, visit here.


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