Knowing You, Knowing Me: Innovation as Transparency

What is happening in the world of innovation these days? In this article, innovation architect Doug Collins reflects on what he heard and learned at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in New York this month. In short: do not underestimate the value of transparency that the practice brings.

The Chief Innovation Officer Summit 2015

I had the chance to attend the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in New York this month. There, people who run the innovation practices and programs for their organizations shared trade craft.

Presenters came from organizations such as MetLife, the bank BBVA, Humana, The Estee Lauder Companies, and the Snap-On Tool Company—large companies that often had a global footprint.

One of the advantages of going to an industry conference and sitting through the sessions, as opposed to hearing one presentation in a private setting, is that you can pick up on themes. I got to hear nine (9) or so presentations in immediate succession from practitioners.

Variations on a Theme

The presenters were skilled story tellers, having told the story of their practice many times ahead of addressing the audience at the summit.

A common narrative unfolded…

  • Our organization sought greater innovation, either because we were in crisis or we feared entering crisis.
  • I was recruited, appointed, or somehow found myself leading the innovation initiative. I wrestled with the ambiguity of the role as I wrestled with the ambiguity of the practice itself. The job itself became a hypothesis to be explored.
  • Internally, I wrestled with the elements of our culture that impeded innovation.
  • Externally, I made best efforts to connect the organization to smart, entrepreneurial people outside our four walls. Work with us. Join us: we are doing exciting things, and we can help you scale.
  • Here is what I have learned so far. Here is where I am going next.

The primary lesson learned? The chief innovation officer or their equivalent must be proactive in defining and communicating the value of the practice. Yes, innovation is the word of the day. A multi-year initiative, run quarter by quarter, remains under continual stress to prove itself, however. The savvy chief innovation officer makes peace with this tension.

Transparency Matters

I learned something new at the summit, as much through my hallway conversations as from the formal presentations. Specifically, a number of chief innovation officers emphasized to me the value of the practice in helping people really understand what was happening in their organization.

  • Who was working on what?
  • Who cared about what?
  • Who was the right point of contact for an inquiry?

One chief innovation officer observed to me that, were a potential collaborator to view their external web site to understand where the company was focusing its research and development, they would come away stymied. The compelling conversations they host inside never are reflected, externally, in a way that others can grasp. As a result, they miss an untold number of opportunities to collaborate. They have to work a lot harder to attract talent and the genesis of new ventures.

The chief innovation officer is on the front lines in the war for talent: for entrepreneurial, innovative people.

By comparison, the presenters who pursue collaborative innovation outside the organization have the self-imposed discipline of expressing what is important to the organization by the questions—or challenges—they pose.

I sense a shift in perspective from privacy being an unquestionable goodness for the organization to privacy, in the form of senseless opacity, as being an increasingly serious impediment to fomenting a culture of innovation. A strong culture of innovation is inherently open, transparent.

The exhibitors at the summit featured many small design and engineering firms seeking from the chief innovation officers in attendance. One proprietor of a design firm sought my help in navigating a client we happen to share.

Who, within the client’s organization, might be interested in what sounded like a novel, compelling idea that his firm had developed?

These inquires interest me, always. Large, global organizations seem like huge, indecipherable monoliths from the outside, looking in. People assign high value to colleagues who can help them find their way forward, given the organizations themselves are hard to navigate.

Closing Thoughts

People who purse the practice of collaborative innovation assign value to the increased level of engagement and, ultimately, the innovations that come from their efforts, over time.

I wonder if we have assigned proper value to the benefit of transparency that the programs bring. I suspect not. I suspect that, every day, we commit the folly of believing that our organizations are more transparent than they really are for the ecosystem of potential partners.

A well-articulated innovation practice opens many doors. The savvy chief innovation officer can take credit for their role as catalyst, anecdote by anecdote.

I leave you with a positive example of corporate transparency. Johnson & Johnson published an “invitation to co-create” guide some years back. It is the best example to date which I have seen that helps an external party navigate their large, global organization. The link is here.

By Doug Collins

About the author

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations such as The Estee Lauder Companies, Fidelity Investments, Johnson & Johnson, Novo Nordisk, and The Procter & Gamble Company navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation.

Doug develops approaches, creates forums, and structures engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the ideas and to the collaboration that result.

As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL).

Today, Doug consults with a range of clients as senior practice leader at innovation management company Mindjet. He helps clients realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.

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