The Paradox of Open Innovation: Internal or External?

What came first, the chicken or the egg? This paradox has perplexed philosophers for millennia.

In the progressive workplace, a similar dilemma confounds executives. In the pursuit of open innovation, what comes first: Innovation created internally, or innovation developed beyond the organization?

People talk about open innovation. It’s the mantra of leadership experts and workplace counselors across the business landscape. But internal versus external innovation also presents a dichotomy. Often conflicting in nature, many proponents of open innovation get tripped up on why external innovation can fail to take root.

In my opinion, the paradox is easily answered: External innovation is destined to fail if the imperatives of internal innovation have not first been developed, deployed and adhered to. Workplace pundits extol the virtues of external innovation, but if innovation isn’t alive and thriving internally, innovation itself will fall on the scrapheap of failed initiatives.

Effective innovation isn’t about the Chief Innovation Officer or even the CEO mandating from on high what milestones R&D or Engineering must pursue or achieve. In fact, innovation that’s “required” to come from R&D, Engineering or some other “Department of Innovation” is susceptible to the Not Invented Here syndrome. If it wasn’t created by someone who’s mandate it is to do just that, it’s often likely to be squashed by exactly those who didn’t come up with the idea. “Quit meddling in my sandbox,” is the complaint.

Those barriers have to be removed. Effective innovation begins with breaking down silos that separate departments, divisions or teams – and encouraging, even welcoming participation from across the organization.

Sure, those directly charged with leading innovation might come up with good ideas. But will they speak to the heart of the organization and how it interfaces with its customers or constituency?

For example, since 1967, Hollywood Woodwork in Hollywood, Florida, has specialized in custom woodwork for use in premier hotels, spas, casinos, country clubs, public projects and corporate offices throughout the United States and Caribbean. Then the recession hit, and the company saw a drop off in its traditional business.

Then the company opened up and solicited ideas from all employees – not just those in Product Development. This led to a simple question: “Can we do church pews?” No deep analysis by skilled research teams or high-paid consultants. Just a simple query that made company executives wonder: Can we?

They could. And now, Hollywood Woodwork does, making many other products utilizing their assets. Building church benches helped diversify the company – and keep it afloat during the recession.

The request also made executives there realize something else: We must be receptive to potential innovation from all internal sources. Not-invented-here doesn’t exist at Hollywood Woodwork. Innovative suggestions are welcomed from across its workforce of 150.

With the foundations of open innovation secure within an organization, only then should a company seek innovation from beyond its walls. If you don’t have internal innovation down pat, and you haven’t removed all the emotional barriers that inhibit the free exchange of ideas, you never will embrace what comes from the outside.

Successful open innovation, then, becomes the preamble to effective external innovation –  if it’s needed at all. Paradox solved, the entire team can focus on true innovation.

By Robert Brands with Jeff Zbar

Robert Brands is the founder of InnovationCoach.com, and the author of “Robert’s Rules of Innovation“: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival, with Martin Kleinman and which will be published in March by Wiley.