April 28, 2022

First bite at open innovation, the story so far

— Author: Jessica Hanan

A little over five years ago, I was introduced to open innovation. I was working in the electric utility industry and sitting a few rows from the front of the keynote address at a Rocky Mountain Electric Association leadership conference in Tucson, Arizona. On stage was Steve Rader, Program Manager at NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation, discussing a new operating model for R&D. NASA had tapped into external partners, both individuals, startups and crowd-based platforms, to advance their innovation. My mind was blown by the ideas he shared around leveraging collective intelligence.

The story that made me a believer comes from a potato chip producer. The company needed a better way to remove grease from their chips. They were vibrating the chips at the time, which led to a high risk of damaging the delicious fare and increasing waste. When posting this challenge to a crowd, they reframed the problem. Instead of asking participants to “get grease off of potato chips,” the new challenge was “remove viscous liquid from a delicate wafer.”

Why the change? Because the bias of knowing it was a food product could subconsciously influence participants to think of the challenge as a traditional food engineering problem, limiting the solutions. Rephrasing it opened the contest up to more innovative thinking.

And it worked. The winning solution was not from a food engineer or any engineer at all. It came from a musician who recommended vibrating the air in the room at the natural frequency of the oil to cause it to literally bounce off the chip.

Rader, of course, had no idea that the course of my career would change with this story. I immediately began sharing what I had learned and evangelizing the concept to anyone who would listen. While an open innovation pipeline increases the total volume of new ideas generated for a business, it also reduces product development times, derisks the R&D process, and helps leaders make better investment allocation decisions.

Open Innovation

How would you apply the potato chip example to your industry and your work? How could generalizing a problem and opening it up to diverse ideas help you leapfrog your development (and wink, wink, your competition)?

One of my favorite beliefs on mindset comes from Albert Einstein, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Coming from the energy industry, where it seems just about everything is suddenly changing, that one hits home. Whether it’s the drastic change to renewable energy sources, the deployment of grid modernization programs, or resiliency efforts to battle tragic events like wildfires and hurricanes, the energy industry is working overtime to keep up with the challenges.

Using the data across the utilities makes it possible to deploy technology, such as AI, to find trends, identify weak points, and bring the advancements necessary to keep the lights on and people safe. The need for innovation is growing in all sectors, and we must diverge from traditional thinking to build a better world. What got us here won’t get us there.

So, I invite you to open your mind to open innovation. I’ll be here when you’re ready.

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram