IF11: 4 Ways to Find Innovation Outside Your Company

IF11: 4 Ways to Find Innovation Outside Your Company

Teamwork image via Shutterstock.

In many ways, a culture of collaboration helps to propel companies along their own personal environmental innovation journeys. While much of it takes place behind the scenes, a growing number of companies are reaching beyond their four walls to find sources of innovation.

During a workshop held on the last day of GreenBiz.com's 2011 Innovation Forum, Michael Ellis, a principal with consulting firm Green Order, and John Wilbanks, vice president of science at Creative Commons, showed how a range of companies, including Nike, GE and Coca-Cola, are using new forms of collaboration to spur innovation, sometimes with mixed success.

"These are all just tools," Wilbanks said. "If you think of them as magic bullets, you'll probably shoot yourself and not the problem. But if you can define the problem cleanly enough and find a community of solvers who are actually going to do the thing, it may have a pretty good chance of working."

Ellis and Wilbanks broke down the collaboration pathways into the four following categories, along with examples of what has and hasn't worked, and when companies should or shouldn't use these methods. Here's how they framed it:

1. Co-creation

This is an active, creative and social process based on collaboration between producers and users to generate value not only for the company, but also for those users, Ellis said.

Coca Cola Freestyle: Consumers can create their own sodas at special vending machines equipped with dozens of different syrups and give feedback to the company. The project also has an environmental and financial upside: the concentrated syrups reduce shipping.

Nike +: Nike created this platform to extend the user experience for its customers beyond their purchases of its products. Through Nike +, consumers can go online, create their own run history and compete with other runners, which teaches the company about their customers preferences. 

When NOT to use co-creation: When what you're trying to design requires specific expertise or internal company knowledge, if your company wants credit for the result, and when you're short on time.

2. Crowdsourcing

This involves outsourcing a task or function through an open call to a network of people.

• The U.S. Geologic Survey's Earthquake Hazards Program: Users across the country report details about earthquakes they've felt, including location, magnitude and intensity.
• The island nation of Maldives: Became the first country in the world to crowdsource its overall countrywide renewable energy strategy, by seeking advice from targeted experts.

Crowdsource fail: Take a tip from the New York Times' widely-panned handling of the release of the Sarah Palin emails. Ellis chalked it up to the Times giving the impression that readers would do the work for the paper.

3. Challenges

This is usually a form of crowdsourcing, with a competitive element and usually involves a prize.

• GE's Ecomagination Challenge: The company launched a contest offering $100,000 each from GE and its VC partners to fund the Top 5 ideas it received for a sustainable innovation related to home energy efficiency and the electricity grid. The company was a huge success and received 5,000 ideas. 

• InnoCentive: A clearinghouse for lots of challenges offered by various organizations, ranging from monitoring institutional corruption to finding ways of helping people stay on task. Of the 1,320 challenges posted to the website, 1,105 have been solved and $28 million paid out in awards.

Tip: It's important to clearly and correctly define challenges, Wilbanks said. You also "need to follow it up with the right mechanisms in order to get the ideas to really take shape," Ellis said.

4. Sharing Intellectual Property (IP)

The type of innovation being sought will dictate how you approach collaboration in IP, Wilbanks said. He laid out three types:

1. Distributed innovation: (Lots of people contribute small pieces to a larger whole. Shares copywrighted works. It's the hardest type of innovation for companies to bootstrap. Examples: Wikipedia and Linux.)

2. User driven innovation: (This type of innovation is much more relevant to product companies. Example: Kiteboarding equipment was invented by kiteboarders but didn't exist as a sport, forcing enthusiasts to source their own surfboards and giant sails. Companies sprung up to productize and optimize the equipment.)

3. Open innovation: (A purposeful, explicit knowledge transfer. Example: the Green Exchange)

Wilbanks cautioned against moving forward with one of these collaboration tools if they are unsure of which to use or if they have a poorly defined problem.

"In the open world, there is an old saying that if you go half open, it's like half learning how to break a board with your hand," he said. "You don't break the board and you end up with a broken hand. It's the worst of all worlds because it also poisons the well. If you go back and try to do something in a couple of years when the time is right and when you have the right problem, people are going to say, 'We tried that and it didn't work.'"

Teamwork image via Shutterstock.