Management at Work Open Invitation to Innovation Case Study Summary & Analysis

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Management at Work


About a decade ago a well-known multinational company hired an innovation consulting firm called NineSigma to draw up a request for proposal (RFP) entitled “Nanoparticle Halide Salt: Formulation and Delivery.” According to NineSigma CEO Andy Zynga, providing an RFP means “crafting a very precise written needs statement for vetted solution providers who have known expertise in specific areas.” In this case, the client was in the market for a chemically designed salt with specific properties—a compound for which its own R&D department didn’t have the necessary expertise. So NineSigma, reports Zynga, “marketed” its RFP “to a broad audience of technical experts. Proposals came in from a variety of industries and organization types, including energy and fuels, pharma, and engineering services.” The winning proposal was submitted by a team of orthopedics researchers who had created nanoparticles of salt for studies of osteoporosis.

And that’s how PepsiCo developed a way to reduce the sodium content of Lay’s Classic potato chips without sacrificing the flavor that consumers were used to. This approach to an expanded search for solutions is sometimes called open innovation, which Zynga defines as “the process of reaching beyond your team, company, or industry for technologies, solutions, ideas, and knowledge available through global solution-provider networks. … The rationale,” he explains, “is that partnering with outside innovators may lead to something even better and will undoubtedly accelerate the process if a more advanced solution exists elsewhere.”

In a very real sense, although it’s a “process of reaching beyond your team,” open innovation is also an extension of the principle of building teams with a greater diversity of input. David Feitler, Senior Program Manager at Nine-Sigma, points to a parallel between team building as a means of breaking down internal barriers to problem solving and open innovation as a means of breaking down external barriers. Feitler explains that another NineSigma client, the Dutch-based multinational paint manufacturer AzkoNobel, was already practicing open innovation as a means of breaching external barriers when it approached NineSigma about improving internal collaboration. The company was divided into 11 autonomous, and it had grown mainly by means of acquisition. As a result, says Feitler, it “had the typical silos, with organizational and geographical boundaries inhibiting the diffusion of knowledge.”

“The solution,” he reports,

was to implement the request for proposal process inside the organization, broadly training large numbers of technical staff about the process and more intensively training a core group of “Internal Program Managers” to provide the coaching and guidance required for a well-specified search [for collaborative ideas].

Two years later, adds Feitler, AzkoNobel had developed a process of assembling “ad hoc SWAT teams” that allows “individuals with challenging problems. … to tap into a system that gives them rapid access to colleagues in other divisions and countries.”

The idea of “ad hoc SWAT teams,” argues Feitler, is consistent with the findings of studies on the role of so-called cross-pollination—the recombination of previously unrelated ideas—in the diffusion of innovation. In particular, Feitler cites research led by Harvard University’s Lee Fleming, who culled data from every U.S. patents granted since 1975. What did Fleming and his team want to find out from all of this data? First, they wanted to know what kind of networks among inventors and researchers had been developed to foster significant cross-pollination. Second, they were interested in how different networks contribute to “creativity,” which is commonly defined as the combining of familiar ideas in unexpected ways.

Fleming’s team identified two different network models that tend to result in “novel combinations”:

  • (1)the broker, which revolves around an influential person who’s connected to many other people who don’t know each other; and
  • (2)the connector, which revolves around an influential individual who often introduces his collaborators to each other.

The researchers found that organizations functioning as brokers were more likely to generate new ideas because they occupied a central position through which information and ideas travel. By the same token, brokers typically found it harder than connectors to get their ideas publicized.

Some related research goes into more practical detail. Gratton and Erickson, for instance, found that cross-pollination “almost always requires the input and expertise of people with disparate views and backgrounds.” In other words, diversity of expertise and experience is critical, but Gratton and Erickson also concluded that it can “inhibit collaboration”: “Diversity,” they observe,

often means that team members are working with people that they know only superficially or have never met before—colleagues drawn from other divisions of the company, perhaps, or even from outside it. We have found that the higher the proportion of strangers on the team and the greater the diversity of background and experience, the less likely the team members are to share knowledge or exhibit other collaborative behaviors.

In turn, these findings are consistent with Fleming’s conclusion that “the evidence linking breakthroughs with multidisciplinary collaborations remains mixed. On average,” advises Fleming, “it’s more productive to search within established disciplines. Or, when trying to cross-pollinate between fields, the more appropriate approach is to combine areas that have some common ground.” Fleming limits the term “breakthrough” to those “very, very few” inventions or innovations that ultimately produce the highest level of value. Thus when it comes to diversity or “multidisciplinary collaboration,” the issue is whether “the divergence between collaborators’ fields of expertise” is more or less likely to yield a breakthrough. In this respect, the results were in fact mixed. Fleming found, for example, that the greater this divergence, “the lower the overall quality” of a team’s output. At the same time, however, outputs will vary more widely from useless to extremely valuable, thus making breakthroughs more likely.

Finally, let’s go back to NineSigma’s Andy Zynga, who attributes the impasse faced by PepsiCo’s internal problem solvers to a “cognitive bias” that psychologists call functional fixedness. “Any five-year-old,” observes Zynga, “has no trouble turning an old blanket and a couple of chairs into an impenetrable fort. But as we get older, knowledge and experience increasingly displace imagination and our ability to see an object for anything other than its original purpose.”

Adult-run organizations, Zynga argues, encounter functional fixedness on a much more complex level: “Technologists, engineers, and designers,” he says, “not only have their own expertise, they have their own way of applying their expertise. Ironically, the more success they’ve had with their approach to a solution, the harder it is to imagine a different one.” As Zynga sees it, open innovation “replicates the process that a five-year-old goes through to see the potential of a fort in a couple of chairs and a blanket.” It’s all a matter of making connections between what you want to create and objects—or ideas—that apparently have unrelated applications. “Open innovation practitioners,” explains Zynga, “source solutions to specific problems in [an analogous] way—by enabling a connection between a need and potential solutions that reside in unrelated industries.”


Must include a summary of the above case.

  1. How good are you at “thinking outside the box”? Are you fixated on functionality? Try solving the following problem before googling the solution. You have the three items pictured here: a book of matches, a box of thumbtacks, and a candle.An illustration shows a match box, a box of thumbtacks, and a candle.How can you attach the candle to a wall so that, when it’s lit, wax doesn’t drip on the floor?
  2. Explain the advantages and disadvantages of open innovation and multidisciplinary collaboration in terms of team cohesion. What aspects of such teams, for example, may increase cohesiveness? Which aspects may reduce cohesiveness?
  3. Consider teams formed for multidisciplinary collaboration or as a result of open innovation in terms of role structure. Is role structure, for example, likely to be set or to evolve differently than it usually does in internal functional or task groups? How might the transmission of sent roles be more complicated? Is role ambiguity likely to be more prevalent? How about role conflict (in particular, intrarole conflict)?
  4. Gratton and Erickson describe two leadership styles among leaders of multidisciplinary teams:
    • relationship-oriented leaders tend to foster “an environment of trust and goodwill in which people are more likely to share knowledge”;
    • task-oriented leaders help “to make objectives clear, to create a shared awareness of the dimensions of the task, and to provide monitoring and feedback.”

    First of all, ask yourself which of these two leadership styles you’re more comfortable with. In other words, if you were assigned to lead a team, which leadership style would you probably bring to the task?Now assume that you have been assigned to lead a team of fellow students in drafting a proposed curriculum of required courses for freshmen and sophomores at your college. Naturally, the team consists of students with a broad range of majors. What will probably be your strengths as leader of your group? What will probably be your weaknesses?Finally, in trying to determine which style—relationship or task oriented—was most effective in leading collaborative teams, Gratton and Erickson concluded thatan emphasis throughout a project on one style at the expense of the other inevitably hindered the long-term performance of the team. … The most productive, innovative teams were typically led by people who were both task and relationship oriented. What’s more, these leaders changed their style during the project.Under what circumstances will you most likely have to change your leadership style in order to keep the group working effectively? Try to be specific in identifying circumstances that might arise over the course of your team project. What do you need to do in order to adjust your style to shifting circumstances?

Requirements: 1-2 paragraphs per questions, answer all bullet points.




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