Open Innovation: Overcoming cognitive bias in innovation projects

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You’ve likely heard of the curse of knowledge or sometimes it is called the curse of the expert. It occurs when our knowledge leads us down predictable paths, likely not considering other possible solutions to problems but only those that are familiar to us. This is cognitive bias and it is the enemy of innovation. By its very nature, innovation requires doing things differently than the way they have been done before.


What is cognitive bias?

It’s how people filter and respond to information based on their experience and knowledge.  An example is deciding what the relevant solutions to a problem may be, using our experience, while ignoring other possible solutions. People working in siloed industries tend to get used to the same solutions.

What’s an example of cognitive bias?

One way to avoid cognitive bias is to break down a problem into its fundamental elements. An example is Kraft food that was looking at a new way to open and reseal a package to keep snack foods fresh for days. What helped them consider different ways of approaching the problem than are normally considered in the food and beverage industry was pursuing items in nature that open and close. They explored biomimicry that led to packaging innovations and new patents. Kraft, a consulting firm, and a Michigan State University research department were involved in creating the innovations.

How can cognitive bias be mitigated?

There are a few approaches we can explore…

  • Inside: better leveraging internal expertise and creating collaboration across existing silos.
  • Existing partnerships: leveraging existing relationships with partners, such as university research groups.
  • Outside: seeking new partnerships and other external sources of knowledge to involve expertise the organization does not have.

What is an open innovation workplace?

A place to start is to give people permission to be receptive to open innovation – to consider what their core competencies are. Also, a need list should be created that helps to identify what the organizational goals are and what the gaps are in reaching them. Next is a talent scouting capability to identify internal and external expertise. Added to this is an IP strategy and guidelines for employees to know what can and can’t be talked about externally. A cross-functional team needs to lead the work.

How is an open innovation workplace created?

Start with a clear and crisp need statement that reflects the organization’s objectives. This leads to identifying the expertise needed. Then the right talent with the expertise can be found. Knowledge management systems can be used to help identify internal expertise.  A needs list can be created monthly, and collaboration champions and others help to find the people who can meet the needs – people with the correct knowledge. Proctor Gamble has done this with communities of practice.

What problems might be encountered?

Resistance to change is always an issue. Some barriers are in place for a reason. Start by understanding the risk tolerance, what barriers are needed, and which ones are negotiable. You need to know what can and cannot be talked about with external contributors. Another factor is the increasing speed of innovation and the decreasing time to market. To decrease time to market, organizations are pursuing open innovation and aligning research and development with product lines. Open innovation helps you manufacture serendipity – giving yourself permission to accomplish the work needed but also to collaborate with others that lead to new ways of thinking about problems and innovation.

What is a success story?

A well-known one is what A.G. Lafley did at PG to drive innovation by creating an objective for 50% new products. It forced change for the organization. Another example is General Motors who had 10-15 working relationships with research and development institutions that now has over 100 relationships.  Further, they have streamlined the process for using expertise at one of these institutions.