Lego design

I finished reading Henry Chesbrough’s book Open Innovation recently, and I have to say it makes sense.  But it’s also a little bit scary.  Here’s why.

Innovation is a balancing act.  It’s a balance between creating a great idea that could change the world with creating an idea that can actually be implemented.  It’s about spending cash to develop that idea, with preserving some of that cash for the long and winding road that’s yet to come.  And it’s a balance between keeping an idea secret for a time and sharing it so that others can help make that idea even better.

And it’s this last balancing act that can lead to problems.  I’ve been in a number of situations where the balance has tipped too far towards the secrecy side of things that there is a real reluctance to bring new people in on the idea at all.  Perhaps even worse is the situation where the innovator has become so convinced that they are the only ones that can solve the problem that they actively discourage ideas from others, even within the same company.

I guess another motivation for not wanting to bring others in on an idea is that it’s much easier to innovation in private, where no one can see you fail.  It’s pretty well recognised that failure is a big part of learning, particularly when it comes to innovation, but it’s not always an easy thing to accept that as an individual.  Your competence is on the line, perhaps your reputation and definitely your pride.

So the idea of Open Innovation can be a bit scary.  If you’re not familiar with the concept, Open Innovation involves partnering with others to give life to an idea.  Among other things, this can involve sourcing ideas from the outside, on the basis that not all the smartest people work for you.  It takes a really pragmatic view of the creative process and promotes an agnostic approach to sourcing ideas.  That is, it doesn’t matter where an idea comes from: if you can find it, and use it, then don’t bother creating it yourself.  And you don’t need to totally own an idea to benefit from it.  There’s lots of other ways to extract value from the ideas of others.

Open Innovation is often contrasted with the process of industrial innovation that dominated the 20th century.  In that distant past (!) large corporations owned ideas, from basic research all the way through to commercialisation and sale.  It resulted in some truly brilliant outcomes, but it also restricted the range of innovations that could be created.  After all, when innovation involves the combination of existing ideas in novel ways, why would you restrict the range of ideas to the ones you can generate yourself?  If we all behaved that way, Steve Jobs may never have breathed life into the mouse (amongst other things) by licencing the idea from Xerox!

So Open Innovation makes sense.  Why recreate the wheel when you can licence the idea from someone else?  And you see some great ideas coming out of this approach.  My favourite is Lego.

Lego has had its ups and downs, but one turning point for them was the release of the Mindstorms range of modular, programmable robotic Lego.  When they released Mindstorms, they found that people started hacking the basic code.  Initially that concerned them, but they soon realised that this hacking was creating features that Lego’s development team hadn’t even thought of themselves.  And it made the product better!

This was a serious learning event for Lego and led to some really interesting approaches to innovation.  At one stage Lego would let anyone create a new Lego design and they would build, package and ship it to you.  That was probably unsustainable, but what that program morphed into was the Lego Ideas program. This program allows anyone to design new Lego products based on existing Lego pieces.  These designs can be posted onto the Lego Ideas website and if they receive 10,000 votes, Lego will put the idea into production.

The brilliance of this approach is that it leverages the creative minds of millions of Lego fans around the world, a much more powerful proposition than the limited capacity of their own design teams.  It also ensures that there’s a market for a new idea before it goes into production, really de-risking the product development process.  Quite frankly, that’s both incredibly smart and just outright cool!

But that sort of approach is also pretty brave.  You need to be able to acknowledge that you aren’t the smartest person around (ouch!), that you don’t have all the answers (ouch!) and that you may need to share your idea to really give it wings (scary…!).  To a lot of people that may not sound like a big problem at all, but let me tell you, I’ve seen plenty of examples where that kind of openness to outside ideas simply wouldn’t only not be accepted, but it would be actively discouraged!  Even worse, I’ve seen situations where a company actively rejects the ideas of new employees, simply because they thought they had all the answers already.

As always, I try to think how these ideas would work if I were in the driver’s seat.  In this case that’s pretty easy, as I have a start-up and there’s no way I can bring the idea to market without using other people’s ideas. But it’s still a little confronting.  But open innovation makes sense to me (and to Lego!), but sometimes it can feel crazy brave to share your idea with the world before you’re convinced it’s even ready for to be released into the wild…

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