The New York Times ran a great piece this morning about InnoCentive, a company that helps connect companies and their challenges with people who might be able to solve those challenges. This company has been on our radar for a while, as they’ve carved out an interesting niche in the innovation world by providing sort of a marketplace for ideas.
It’s a pretty simple system, really. Companies post specific challenges to InnoCentive’s online database. InnoCentive helps these companies refine each challenge, and a “prize” is attached to it (usually between $10,000 and $25,000). The company posting each challenge is kept hidden. Anyone can log onto InnoCentive’s database and try to solve one of the challenges. Once someone comes up with a solution, they inform InnoCentive, transfer IP rights over to the company who posted the problem, collect their prize, and it’s done.
The beautiful part about this system is that anyone can try to solve the problems in the InnoCentive database. PhD’s, college students, it really doesn’t matter. The company has actually found that most of the “solvers” are people who are completely outside the industry of the challenge at hand. From the Times:
Dr. Lakhani [who has studied Innocentive,] said his study of InnoCentive found that “the further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it,” often by applying specialized knowledge or instruments developed for another purpose.
For example, he said, the brain might be thought of as a biological system, but “certain brain problems may not be solvable by taking a biological approach. You may want to cast it as an electrical engineering approach. An electrical engineer will come in and say, ‘Oh, here’s the answer for you.’ They have not thought of themselves as being neuroscientists but now they can approach the problem from the point of view of electrical engineering.”
This is where the ever-powerful idea of “open innovation” comes into play. Many “experts” in a given field or industry are simply unable to look at a specific challenge with outside perspectives. It is for this reason that it’s critical to constantly be scanning resources and publications and studies from outside your field. The possibilities for gamechanging innovation often lie in applying solutions from another industry to your own. In the last few years alone, we’ve seen this applied in interesting ways. HP is partnering with Crospon to apply inkjet technology to the medical field; Toyota is using its expertise in manufacturing and production to expand its operations in the pre-fab housing market; Honda is exploring the world of household energy using its knowledge of hydrogen fuel cells… the list goes on.
The point is that you can apply your knowledge and expertise to completely new industries in the same way that outsiders can apply their diverse skills and knowledges to problems your company is facing.
For more information on how to tap the great outside, visit InnoCentive’s Website and check out the New York Times feature, which lists a number of other “challenges” companies have issued recently. Try to come identify the seemingly intractable challenges your organization is facing and see if there are any opportunites for you to “look outside” for the answers.