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"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." - Helen Keller

Let's have a little gut-check today, shall we? How is your company set for new ideas? Has it been a while since you've developed an innovative product or solution? Is it taking you longer than your competitors to bring new ideas to market?

If you've been bringing up the rear in terms of innovation, you're not alone. Lots of companies have been left in the dust by small start-ups or Asian and Indian companies who just seem to have a knack for innovation. But what if I told you there was a way to double, triple, or even quadruple new ideas without expanding your workforce? It's called collaborative innovation. By opening your company up to ideas from customers, vendors, inventors and yes - even potential competitors - you can instantly open the flood gates to ideas that will put you back in the front of the pack.

What Is Standing In Your Way?

Collaboration is easy to talk about, but most of us find it difficult to execute. Think of the challenges you face getting your own team to work together on new concepts. Expanding your network in a collaborative innovation scenario can be even more daunting. Why? Because there are very real stumbling blocks that stand in the way of implementing an innovation network. The three most common issues that hinder collaboration are:

  1. Cultural Challenges - When you've relied on your internal team for new ideas and processes for years and years, it's hard to reach out and bring new brains into the proverbial Circle of Trust. Some leaders may fear that asking for outside input is a sign of weakness, or team members may feel threatened by people they feel are interlopers.
  2. Contextual Challenges - You've got to understand which models of collaboration work within the framework of your company, the way you work, your goals, and your collective skill set. To complicate matters further, this may look different for each project on the table.
  3. Execution Challenges - Does the company have the framework to execute? Do you need to upgrade technology? Close skill gaps within the team? Improve communication channels? It's difficult to spot potential deficiencies ahead of time, but it's necessary to plan for the "what ifs" that may arise.

When you know the challenges you face when taking on a collaborative innovation initiative, you can plan for those challenges and take steps to overcome them and bridge the gaps that may impede success. What Types Of Innovation Networks Are There, Anyway?

So you know that you want to open your company to collaborative innovation. You've identified potential challenges. Now what? You've got to choose the type of network structure that will get you where you want to go. Innovation networks can come in a variety of forms. Here are the most common:

  1. An Open Source Community - Open source was born in the programming community. It is code that is made freely available to anyone who wants to work on it, but control remains with the company that invented it. Microsoft Word is close-sourced, for example. If you've heard of a LINUX operating system, that's open source. Working in an open source community instantly exposes you to a legion of professionals with exceptional ideas and skills.
  2. A Community of Customers - Who knows your products better than your customers? Who knows where you are lacking better than your customers? Getting them involved in idea submission, product improvement and even new product testing not only generates a wealth of new ideas, but it also strengthens your relationship with your customer base.
  3. A Community of Inventors - Have you ever seen a competitor launch a product and thought, "Why didn't we think of that?" Your team can innovate, but they can only innovate so much. There are millions of people with creative, amazing and even so-crazy-they-just-might-work ideas out there. Open your doors to those ideas by offering people a chance to share in profits or royalties if you adopt their inventions.
  4. A Common Platform - There is a reason Salesforce has taken over the CRM market. They allow developers to build their own applications within the system. Those developers can then make their apps available to others to use on Salesforce, which means new feature are always being added and improved upon.

What Type Of Innovation Network Is Right For You?

Obviously you can't just pick a network out of the air and apply it to your project. You've got to consider two critical factors when selecting a network structure. First is innovation space. If you're looking to improve an existing project, you've got a limited space and framework to play with. However, if you're developing entirely new products or services and you don't have a clearly defined end point, your space to play is wide open.

The second factor is leadership. You might require clearly defined leadership, with a project manager or director leading the group through a set path to hit tight deadlines or budgets. On the other hand, you might require a more diffused approach, with different people stepping up to lead at different points as the project dictates over time.

Collaborative innovation may sound like a bit of a freewheeling process, but it doesn't just happen on its own. You've got to set aside time and resources to determine the models and frameworks that will work for your company and your goals, but once you've reached those determinations, you're ready to open up the floor to amazing new ideas.


Larry Hart

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