At last week’s Green Innovators in Business Network Solutions Lab in Cambridge, MA, participants explored how to accelerate innovation to bring low-carbon solutions to market on a big scale. Accessing diverse perspectives is key to finding the innovative solutions to challenging problems, as illustrated by case studies of Innocentive and EMC.
Searching Wide for Innovative Solutions
Innocentive helps clients “crowd-source” innovation to access “smart people who do not work in your company.” They post a client’s problem on their on-line platform where over 250,000 people worldwide can submit proposed solutions. The “solvers” can get financial awards ranging from $2,000 to over $100,000 for a winning idea. In some cases, clients get solutions for problems in 60 days that they have been working on for 15 years.
Often the solution to an innovation challenge comes from someone who does not work closely in the situation and can bring a new perspective. Research on their ten years of experience (in a paper entitled The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving) found that having diverse perspectives leads to successful innovations:
- The greater the range of scientific backgrounds of people attracted to try to solve a problem, the more likely the problem was to be solved. For example, a scientific team from a pharmaceutical firm had not been able to solve a challenge after trying several paths. They broadcast the problem to Innocentive’s database of problem solvers and got interest from 739 solvers from over 20 countries representing over 15 distinct fields of expertise. Ultimately, they got 30 very different solution proposals and the winning one was from a molecular biologist in Argentina.
- The further the problem was from the solvers’ field of expertise, the more likely they were to solve it.
This research echoes our experience using the Search for Insight group-brainstorming process, where a person shares a current challenge and a roomful of people ask strategic questions. Every time I have been part of one, the diversity of perspectives opens up new ideas and possibilities for addressing the challenge and/or surfaces assumptions the person had not realized they had.
Breaking Down Institutional Barriers to Find the Best Ideas
EMC, an information technology company, demonstrated what can happen when its 35,000 employees were given the opportunity to share their ideas for innovations. The company created an Innovation Challenge contest annually to capture the best ideas of its employees worldwide. Stephen Todd, a software engineer, told how he entered an idea in the first year’s contest and ended up winning third place. He had the opportunity to meet winners from around the company and pitch his idea to executives. The next year he entered another idea and got second place, and his career and visibility started to rise, from working on his narrow focus in his cubicle to becoming an internal and external blogger and connecting with people around the world working on innovation.
Within ten years, EMC’s contest went from generating 400 ideas to over 1,500 ideas from 25 countries and they had gained over $100 million in revenue from the ideas. Now Stephen is Director of EMC’s Global Innovation Network, running the ever-expanding contest and regional innovation conferences. Various business departments offer challenges that they ask employees to solve. This is a great example of getting smart people from many backgrounds all over the company considering how to solve a problem, rather than having the people working on a challenge only include those in that organizational function or department. Using the metaphor of Stephen Todd’s career, the contest can lift talented thinkers/innovators out of their small cubicles to share and apply their talents more widely across the company.