The creative advantage of being an outsider

People outside a sector can demonstrate more inventiveness when it comes to thinking up innovative solutions. 

The less you know about a sector, the more likely you are to come to it with a fresh eye and original ideas. Someone on the edge of a sector of activity is more likely to think unconventionally, because they are not burdened by the thought processes and rules prevalent in that sector.

When you try to resolve a problem or come up with a new concept, it is therefore worth approaching as many people as possible, including people outside the company’s sector, not just experts in that sector. Why not involve customers, giving them prototypes or asking their opinion? 

The principle of open innovation

To generate new ideas and turn them into innovations, a company can open up the research process to external players, rather than remaining closed in on itself. This is the principle of open innovation. According to Henry Chesbrough from the University of California, Berkeley, in the era of the internet and the free distribution of knowledge, companies will be more able to manage their own inventions if they integrate ideas, products and patents which come from outside the company. The following table summarizes the differences between the principles of closed innovation and open innovation:

Closed innovation Open innovation
The best in our sector work for us. We work with the best both within and outside the company.
We invent, develop and manufacture our innovations ourselves. External research and development (R&D) can create significant value. But internal R&D is necessary to claim part of that value.
If we conduct the best research in the sector, we will reap the rewards. We do not need to conduct the research in order to benefit from it.
If we create the most and best ideas in the sector, we will reap the rewards. If we make the best use of external and internal ideas, we will reap the rewards.
We have to supervise our innovation process to prevent competitors having access to our ideas. We have to benefit from the use others make of our innovations and buy the intellectual property of others whenever this advances our own interests.

Source: Business Model Generation, Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, Pearson. 

Crowdsourcing: Calling on the public for ideas

To generate new ideas, companies choosing open innovation can now turn to the general public. Their tool is crowdsourcing and public tenders for ideas organized on the internet, which give everyone the chance to become an innovator and earn part of the total prize awarded for the best ideas (a few thousand francs in Switzerland; often 10 times that in the U.S.). For example, a new organic iced tea under the Migros group's Bischofszell brand was recently conceived thanks to a type of online brainstorming.

There are many crowdsourcing sites, including Atizo in Switzerland. Internationally, the American website InnoCentive, launched in 2001, is the leading website in this sector in terms of number of participants. Over 350,000 “solvers” have signed up from 200 countries. Companies submit a challenge they have come across, which is then posted online, inviting internet users to propose solutions. This can help a food multinational trying to develop a low-calorie chocolate topping or an electronics company wanting to come up with a lithium computer battery working on solar energy. The platform includes SMEs, large multinationals and non-governmental organizations among its customers.

In 2007, Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School, analyzed hundreds of challenges posted on the website. He found that nearly 40% of them were resolved within six months. Usually, the person who finds the solution does not come from the sector concerned, but from a similar discipline. A molecular biologist, for example, will solve a chemistry question or vice versa. 

Traveling the world to open your mind

The outsider advantage can particularly benefit young people, who have not yet had time to overly internalize the conventions prevailing in their sector or business. Another way of cultivating this fresh approach is to travel. Researchers from INSEAD and the Kellogg School of Management have shown that students who had spent time abroad were, on average, more talented in resolving creative problems than those who had not left their country. The same characteristic applies to people with more than one social identity (Asian-Americans or female engineers, for example), according to scientists.

Sources: Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Business Model Generation, Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, Pearson.

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Last modification 02.08.2018

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