Don’t invite guests to a house that is not in order

As I am getting ready for my second visit in South Africa, I wonder if and how open innovation can make a difference here.

Open innovation is a new paradigm shift in which companies not only rely on their internal resources to make innovation happen, they also merge these with external resources to bring better innovation to market faster.

This is now happening in a more systematic approach than ever before and the early movers are starting to see real benefits out of this approach.

Unfortunately, there are not yet any notable South African companies when it comes to open innovation.

It is my impression that many companies are still trying to understand the more traditional kind of innovation based on their internal resources. They are trying to make this work by building proper strategies, frameworks and by educating their executives, managers and employees.

Some might think it is too much to ask to also make external partners a natural element of this process.

This is a fair assessment. It is difficult to integrate external partners for innovation efforts and I often advise companies not to invite guests to a house that is not in order. This can become messy.

However, we can use the development of the mobile communication infrastructure across Africa as an analogy here. Not so long ago, the Western world looked at Africa as the lost continent and this was in large part due to the lack of the communication infrastructure.

It would be too expensive to dig down the cables necessary to bring the infrastructure up to an adequate level.

Africa was a lost continent because today everyone knows that you can’t develop an economy without the proper communication infrastructure. Well, the picture is different today. The infrastructure is in place and Africa is now seen as a continent of opportunities.

What if African companies leap-frogged the understanding and approach to innovation in a similar way? What if they decided not to first learn and properly manage the “old” kind of innovation, but instead jumped directly to the “new” kind of innovation. The one that is global and open.

The real beauty of open innovation in South Africa is how it can bring big and small companies together. If the big companies really decide to open up their innovation efforts, they can become a growth catalyst for many startups while they improving their own business. This is a win-win situation.

Baby steps

There are some steps that the South African innovation community (big and small companies, government and academic organisations, advisors and others) must take to make this happen.

Take a holistic approach to innovation. Innovation has to be about more than just products and technologies. Business models, services and processes are just as important.

Learn and educate. Companies need to invest more in the training on innovation. This not only goes for the employees, but also for executives and managers and since there is no fun being the only company that understands this new paradigm of innovation, many companies must also educate their partners.

Have a global outlook. Open innovation is very much about creating innovation eco-systems that bring benefits to all partners. Given the means of communication in today’s business world it is easier than ever to innovate with global partners. Don’t miss out on this.

Innovate on how you innovate. Companies need to be more open for experimentation and this is not only about the innovation outcomes – the products, services and business models. Companies also need to experiment and innovate on how they innovate.

Accept failures and learn from them. A key obstacle for open innovation is a low tolerance for failure. However, you simply cannot avoid occasional failures when you experiment and innovate. This is part of the game. The key is to learn from your failures.

Build trust. Open innovation is based on trust. It can be difficult to establish trust when projects sometimes fail, but there is no other option. You need to trust your partners and help each other develop further. Here it is important to understand that the best outcomes based on open innovation come with partners that you work with over a longer period of time. It takes time to build trust.

If these steps are taken properly, innovation will become an even bigger driver for growth and prosperity in South Africa. I sense the interest for innovation is there and I hope this interest will turn into thoughtful action. This is the only thing that really matters.

Let’s hope this action can turn open innovation into a major booster for the future development and prosperity across the African continent and, in particular, in South Africa where you already have a fairly strong innovation foundation in place.

Stefan Lindegaard is an author, speaker and strategic advisor. He has written three books on innovation and his blog is a globally recognised destination on open innovation.

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