Open Innovation: How to Open-up to a Larger Group of People and Ideas?

Stephen Shapiro’s Interview for the White Paper « Everything you need to know before launching an innovation project »


Stephen Shapiro : Innovation Instigator, Business Advisor, Keynote Speaker (TEDx NASA Speaker), Author



“Open innovation and external innovation are not synonymous in my mind. It’s important to note that Open Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean opening up to people outside the organization. The concept of open innovation is simple: How do we open-up to a larger group of people? Internally – to other departments; externally – to our customers, suppliers, partners, or even to the world.“

Stephen Shapiro offers us his vision of a progression through 5 levels of openness and highlights the limits of each level.

A progression through 5 levels of openness

« Let’s take as example the traditional approach for developing a product.

Level 1

At this level, Experts from a specific department (product developers in this example), will work together to solve a problem and develop their product. It’s easier for them because they have deep contextual knowledge and a good understanding of the problem. In some respect this is the easiest level, which is why most companies have traditionally used this approach. A group of experts work together to solve an issue.


The biggest downside is that it can be quite limiting due to a lack of diversity and quantity of the solvers involved. Many organizations realize that this limits the amount of input they get from others within the organization. The solution is to move towards open innovation.

Level 2

Therefore they move to the second level: collect employee ideas via a suggestion box. In the beginning, suggestion boxes generate a lot of ideas.


Some of these [ideas] may have been thought of long ago but there was no vehicle for sharing them. Unfortunately, after 6-9 months, the number of ideas and the quality of the ideas drops massively. Given that a large percentage of ideas submitted are typically not implemented, people eventually get weary of submitting solutions. Plus the amount of energy involved in sifting through the “bad” ideas can be time consuming. The solution is to move to challenge-centered innovation, and away from idea driven innovation.


Level 3

Level 3 is to move to internal open innovation challenges. Essentially what that means is that instead of asking employees for their opinions suggestions or ideas about anything, you ask them for solutions to well-framed problems/opportunities.

The success of an open innovation effort from my perspective is largely based on getting better questions rather than looking for solutions or for ideas.

As Albert Einstein said:” If I had an hour to save the world, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding solutions…”

You might post a challenge on the company intranet such as: “How might we improve productivity in a specific problem area of the business? Inviting employees to provide their solutions.

The key is to post challenges that are specific enough so that they are not overly abstract, yet not so specific that a particular solution or domain of expertise is implied.


How do you get people motivated, to participate in an effort, when they have other jobs to do? At this level you can have difficulties to motivate people. Also at this level, people may have contextual knowledge of the problem, but not as much as those working directly with the problem. You have to produce challenge briefs. They are usually a couple of pages long with background information and evaluation criteria. This is an effective level, but you are still limiting the diversity and the quantity of solvers.

Level 4

The 4th level is collaborating with trusted third parties: Universities, consultants, partners, suppliers or a hand selected group of customers. This level is when you start going outside your organization.


If you are sharing sensitive data with external partners, how do you protect that information? You will likely run into some intellectual properties issues and must decide who owns the IP. There may also be the issue of needing to provide some more context, because the partner is external to the company, hence they don’t understand what the company is going through. This level is also very useful for identifying challenges, not just solutions.

Level 5

The 5th level is external crowd sourcing: asking for solutions from potentially 7 billion people.


Beyond IP consideration, you need to make sure that the problem you’re solving doesn’t require a lot of contextual knowledge, because when you open up to everyone, you don’t want to give out a lot of sensitive information about the company. Plus, people are not going to take the time to understand the depths of the company in terms of their strategies, unless you provide a sufficiently large “prize”. Therefore you need to frame the problem in a way that people can get their heads around it quite easily. »

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