A recent article by Randall Wright in MIT Technology Review discussed the problems with open innovation. There has been lots of articles recently about how open innovation is the next big thing in innovation. In a nutshell, it involves open up your innovation to a large group of people in order to find new ideas. It’s popular, and has been adopted by lots of well known organizations, such as Starbucks, Coke, and Nike. Coke purportedly used this methodology, and came up with ideas that were very successful. However, most of the ideas were based on consumer marketing. In other words, they got the people that drink Coke (a large percentage of the population is at least familiar with what it is), and had them design a campaign to more effectively sell the product. The results rivaled the quality and appeal of ads produced by top advertising agencies. But did they innovate? No, they “reverse surveyed.” Instead of surveying consumers with a set of questions, taste tests, etc., to determine the best way to market, they just asked a whole bunch of people to give them the best way to market. This is similar to asking every customer who leaves a restaurant, “How could we improve our appeal/food/restaurant?” except you do it all at once.
I think this method works well for consumer-oriented organizations. It can help you select the best new paint colors, catch phrases, and product packaging. It works in areas where the problems are well known and understandable, i.e., what is your favorite color. However, when you talk about ground-breaking innovation, you’re referring to areas where the average person has no experience. Consider Linux, the darling of open innovation, is still outpaced by the commercial products.
According to Wright, “real innovation is always the outcome of ongoing discourse among a small group of innovators who truly understand the importance of what they’re working on.” Read his article for more insight.