• Innovation

Collaborate, Compete and Innovate

Sigvald Harryson and Johan Roos offer a methodology for driving breakthrough innovation through collaborative competitions


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Innovation by competition isn’t new. Gustave Eiffel’s tower was a competition winner. But collaborative it wasn’t – sparking fierce controversy at the time, deemed a disaster by France's best aesthetic minds, and seen as a gimmick that would hopefully be demolished after the 1906 World's Fair.

Collaborative competitions, an approach explained in the new book, ‘Disrupting Innovation through Collaborative Competitions’, may not have brought harmony to the warring artistic versus engineering competitors in 1906 Paris, but is an approach that is revolutionising innovation in today’s complex business world. It is an approach that can disrupt the many barriers that so often hold up innovation in organizations. Barriers built by over eager egos, organizational silos, R&D researchers out of sync with commercial reality, bought-in or crowdsourced innovation that fails the implementation test, or just plain inefficiency.

The authors, Hult International Business School professors, Johan Roos and Sigvald Harryson (founder and CEO of iKNOW-WHO), see innovation as a broad spectrum from incremental, through radical, to disruptive, to breakthrough. They admit that their methodology is at its most relevant at the breakthrough end – where innovation is not only very hard but where it faces the most internal resistance from people clinging to the status quo – but say that it can also be needed in many other circumstances along the spectrum.

The thing that gives this book particular relevance for would-be practitioners is that, far from being a new unproven concept, the use of collaborative  competitions has been pioneered by these authors over the past 20 years and has achieved extreme breakthrough innovations for many major companies. In fact, the second half of the book is devoted to a compelling analysis of the innovation challenges, collaborative competition initiatives, and outcomes at some of these companies, including: Nestlé, Phillips, Porsche, AkzoNobel, Bombadier, Tetra Pak, Straumann Dental, and Bang & Olufsen.

The book first runs through the pros and cons of the traditional approaches organizations take to fostering innovation: relying on internal R&D departments (it was the authors’ experience of the slowness and inefficiency of in-house experts that led them to look for a different way), buying in innovation, in some cases engaging in shared knowledge exchange (with other corporations or universities); before going on to explain the advantages and the processes involved in innovation through collaborative competitions.

Innovation through collaborative competitions taps into the delicate balance in human nature between being independent and wanting to win others over to our ideas versus sharing and being part of a team – competing versus collaborating. In essence it is about co-creation, where different teams bringing different experiences to bear to address the same simply defined brief in a competition format but where the authors contend “The outcome of the co-creation is greater in value than the sum of the individual contributions that each of the parties would have been able to make in isolation.”

A collaborative competition starts with the identification of the innovation goal, bringing all prior research and knowledge to bear, identifying fields of knowledge required, identifying the metrics to be used to declare the goal is reached. Then it is a matter of choosing 3 to 5 teams to compete, ensuring team diversity (university profs, PhDs, post-docs, etc.), selecting a coach for each team, and then asking each team to follow a clearly defined path through five ‘solution-finding’ modules – from team briefing and validation, through review processes, to delivering the final solution.

One small caveat: the book, although beautifully designed, appears to European eyes to look more like a student textbook than a breakthrough business book. This is an important book – don’t be put off! 

Disrupting Innovation through Collaborative Competitions, Sigvald Harryson and Johan Roos. New Insights Press, 2018. ISBN 978-0-99848-504-1

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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