The Blind Men & The Elephant: An Open Innovation Blueprint

By Ludwig Melik, HYPE Innovation |  December 4, 2020
“It’s a wall.” “It’s a snake.” “It’s a rope.” “It’s a spear.” “It’s a fan.” “No, it’s a tree!” And so goes the story of “The Blind Men & The Elephant.” The tale is a great example of how you and your team can manage your innovation efforts. You can hold onto your current belief, or become open-minded to other points of view, which can help shape a new understanding as additional facts help reveal a new truth.

Ludwig Malik, Planbox

The process of uncovering the root cause of a problem can often make one feel like the blind men in this parable searching for answers. The choice is yours: You can settle for what is tangible and within reach, or you can cast a wider net looking to diversify your data points and get a complete 360 degree perspective on the possibilities. Enabling and expanding ecosystems is more than ever a hot area of focus as organizations need to become more proactive, adaptive, resilient, and customer-obsessed. Enabling and expanding your ecosystem means going beyond your employees’ collective intelligence — fostering collaboration and learning directly from your customers, suppliers, partners, academics, researchers, and the startup community.
“Elephants can sense danger. They’re able to detect an approaching tsunami or earthquake before it hits.” — Jennifer Richard Jacobson
For the longest time, there were two major types of corporate open innovation practitioners: 1. The Open Innovator Naysayers: These cynics stay on the sidelines looking over with suspicion and come up with the same tired reasons for why this would never work for them. Privacy, confidentiality, regulations, compliance, and intellectual property concerns usually stop them dead in their tracks. This type of group prefers to live in the status quo. 2. The Intermittent Open Innovators: For some, open innovation means to create value faster, better, and cheaper to complement their internal innovation effort. They understand the importance of engaging in open innovation. However, any mandate is highly dependent on exhausting internal resources to address problems before looking to the outside world or considering a particular challenge that lends itself to such an approach. For this reason, this type of group will always be looking for a good challenge. Consequently, their diversified and valuable data points will only be viewed as individual pieces, rather than connected dots. Much like the blind men, this group loses sight of all the incredible possibilities standing right in front of them (the elephant!) The world is shifting to operate under constant volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), a condition which was severely exasperated by the recent events and the ongoing pandemic. Businesses no longer have the same amount of knowledge about a situation, nor can they accurately predict its outcomes. This trend is paving the way for an entirely new generation of open innovators to emerge: The Adaptive Open Innovators. This new group embraces open innovation and strives to create an “always open” ecosystem. They connect, network, and nurture with external participants as core principles. Their mantra is that true economic moat comes from enabling and expanding innovation ecosystems primarily driven by a robust and resilient open innovation practice; the external contributors’ level of influence is carefully reviewed and their level of contribution is orchestrated for maximum efficiency. There are many methods your organization can utilize to tap into a vast global network of multidisciplinary teams of diverse and creative expert problem solvers who are eager and ready to tackle your most complex and pressing business challenges:

The right open innovation approach depends on many criteria defined by your team and the nature of the problem, such as the desired outcomes, appropriate screening process, and evaluation criteria. Below is the Open Innovation Model Matrix® used by many practitioners to help them choose the most appropriate open innovation approach and define the most beneficial strategy for open innovation ecosystem enablement and expansion:

In addition to evaluating the open innovation approach, a successful campaign should include developing a model to assess the challenge’s complexity and determine a fair reward in exchange for IP rights. The following is some of the essential criteria you should consider:
  • Strategic Value (Continuous Innovation, Horizon 1, Horizon 2, Horizon 3)
  • Revenue Impact
  • Cost Reduction Considerations
  • Complexity of Problem
  • Attempts to Solve Internally
  • Problem Maturity
  • Level of Risk
  • Number of People/Products Impacted
  • Technology Area
  • Solver Type & Expertise Required
  • Solution Deliverable
Based on a low, mid, or high ranking for each of these, you can then define three to five possible categories (e.g. basic, simple, medium, advanced and prodigy). This will help determine the appropriate award prize.
“Elephants, it turns out, are surprisingly stealthy.” – Thomas French
In the pre-COVID-19 era, aka “The Before Times,” many companies did not strategically approach the concerns. Instead, they viewed the interaction transactionally. The “New Normal” is transmitting signals for innovators to transition into this new world and become the next adaptive open innovators. No comprehensive ecosystem strategy can properly function unless there is a clear model and process that includes the employees’ close involvement. Moreover, having one or multiple employees take full ownership of a project from the beginning until the end (yes, find your true innovation evangelist!) will ensure a seamless transition from your external ecosystem to the internal team and drive the project forward. The elephant is a majestic animal and an incredibly unique creation that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Similarly, a genuinely integrated innovation ecosystem not only develops individual connections to customers, suppliers, partners, academia, researchers, and the startup community, but it also looks to create a unified framework that involves, learns, and correlates the data across the entire structure. The end result provides an unparalleled level of foresight and intelligence that truly drives a sustainable innovation mindset and builds continuous feedback loops to monitor and proactively seize transformational opportunities.

Ludwig Melik is the CEO of Planbox, an agile innovation management platform, and IdeaConnection, an open innovation expert solver network.  Prior to Planbox, Ludwig co-founded Tenrox, a bootstrapped startup that became a leader in project management software. Melik co-authored the book “Optimizing Project and Service-Oriented Organizations” published by Wiley, and has an authoritative blog on LinkedIn in which he regularly explores innovation through a creative lens. You can also watch his unique perspective on the 7 Habits of Highly Innovative Organizations. View the original article at InnoLead regularly publishes Thought Leadership pieces written by our Strategic Partner firms.