7 tips for managing an open innovation challenge

A headshot of Sharon McIntyre

by Sharon McIntyre

A cartoon illustration of three heads facing the same way with lightbulbs surrounding their brains.

We often hear the expression, “Ideas are cheap”.

Forgive us for taking objection to that.

Ideas aren’t really cheap. Ideas are just lazy. They’re total flakes. They show up when they feel like it, and sometimes they don’t show up at all. They also don’t do much unless someone pushes them into action. And yet, they’re revered and sought after, and when they do perform, boy, can they be powerful.

But like the old saying goes, “Potential is nothing, performance is everything.”

In other words, you’ve got to manage ideas and then follow through with proper execution. This is especially important for open innovation in which the line between “blue skies thinking” and “purposeful co-creation” is easily blurred.

After reading previous articles in our open innovation series, you’re probably eager to toss a problem to the world and see what it throws back, but it pays to be patient and plan thoughtfully. Manage an open innovation project poorly and you will either get no ideas or so many ideas that you drown in them.

Related Read: 5 open innovation mistakes to avoid

So, here’s what you do. You set yourself up for success by ensuring your open innovation project or challenge accounts for all of the following. No exceptions.

A solid understanding of the project’s purpose

What is the end goal of your open innovation project? Do you have a clear understanding of the problem you wish to solve? Have you defined the scope of the project?

If you haven’t answered these questions yet, your project is already a no-go.

Just because an innovation project is “open”, doesn’t mean it’s unfocused. Poorly managed open innovation projects run the risk of being unruly. An open call for ideas without an understanding of the end goal overwhelms the project moderators with submissions. It also fails to draw the respect or commitment of the rest of the organization, and that brings us to our next point which is…

Buy-in from key stakeholders

Depending on your organization’s history with open innovation, the project will either be well-received or met with resistance. In either case, you’ll need the support of different divisions and that support will only come if the heads of those divisions make the project a priority.

Before you conduct an external marketing campaign, you’ll need an internal marketing campaign that demonstrates the value of the project. This is one early instance in which a solid understanding of the project’s purpose is critical.

A digital venue for collaboration, submissions, and idea processing

An open innovation project has to have a dedicated resource for information sharing, collaboration, and submissions.

Yes, an open innovation project is decentralized due to its inclusion of people from different organizations, institutions, backgrounds, and geographies, but your organization’s task is to bring all of these ideas together in a cohesive, manageable way.

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Participants need to be able to access instructions and deadlines and managers need to be able to sort through submissions and easily answer participant questions all in one place. We’ll talk a little more about the importance of a dedicated, digital open innovation (otherwise known as co-creation) platform in an upcoming article.

A cohesive marketing strategy for external players

This is where buy-in from the rest of the organization comes into play. You’ll need a marketing strategy to attract impressive participants. Your goal is to draw the best and the brightest into this competition, and that won’t happen unless they hear about the project. You’ll need the help of your marketing team to:

  • Produce informative videos
  • Create literature on the open innovation contest and the problem you’re trying to solve
  • Develop a recruitment campaign that reaches the right individuals through the sites, platforms, and publications where they spend the most time

Conversations with your legal team

Recall our definition of open innovation from Henry Chesbrough. Open innovation is about inflows and outflows of knowledge.

Even the most brilliant technologists, designers, or scientists won’t be able to solve your problem if they don’t have the details. If you’re going to be cagey about the information you have, then there’s no point in holding an open innovation project at all.

Does this mean you pour all of your company’s secret sauce onto the sidewalk for anyone to lap up?

Absolutely not.

It means you consult with your legal department to figure out a way to share necessary information without compromising your company. Again, this is where a clear understanding of the problem your contest solves is important.

This conversation with your legal team is also critical for determining other facets of your contest like the rights of contestants to ideas they generate, obligations to give your organization first right of refusal, licensing agreements and compensation, intellectual property considerations, award money, and more.

Moderator (or moderators) to guide the process and motivate participants

Participants need attention in order to stay motivated, especially since the challenge offers a cash prize and not a wage for effort.

Read Next: 9 things we've learned about innovation + creativity since 2009

As a result, when they ask questions or encounter roadblocks, a moderator must be present to offer that support. A moderator also keeps the project on track to ensure energy is focused on solving the task at hand. This is another reason why a dedicated platform is particularly important, which we will talk more about in Chapter 5.

An efficient idea processing mechanism

We’ve placed this last because idea processing happens at the end of the project. That said, the work of figuring out how submissions will be organized and evaluated should happen before the first piece of marketing is sent out.

Will there be an application process for people to even enter the challenge to ensure you’re only receiving serious participants?

Once participants are chosen, do you have clear scoring and evaluation criteria to provide so that they know how they’ll be assessed once the project’s over?

A well-planned process does two things: It ensures you’re getting good ideas and it ensures you’ll know what to do with those good ideas once you have them.

By incorporating all of these elements into your open innovation plan, you’ll ensure you get quality ideas, that your project has a chance of being executed, and that your expert participants remain engaged throughout the process.

Next Up: The ultimate guide to managing open innovation for product development

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