Thursday, November 7, 2013

Tortoise Innovation: The Problem with Corporations (and Their Inventors) Hiding in a Shell

tortoise hiding in a shell
Many large companies take a tortoise approach to innovation and stay as hidden within their shells as possible, even some who advocate open innovation. Tortoise companies may have creative R&D staff, including many scientists doing good work, but they keep these inventors hidden in the shell rather than encouraging them to publish or present their work.

The hares, on the other hand, take greater risks as they frequently step out of their comfortable burrows. They let their inventors not just show up at conferences and other events, but take the podium and present. Or, when appropriate, publish their work in major journals. As a result, their inventors become known and get to know many others with related interests. It is that visibility that allows potential partners to find them, to learn about their work, and to come forward with proposals for partnership or further innovation. These visible minds become more highly connected and able to contribute more directly and effectively to the open innovation needs of the Corporation. They are connected to other industries and better connected to the market, and may be more likely to recognize ways to adapt their inventions for better success.

The extreme of tortoise innovator may well be the large body of government scientists that conducted high-tech R&D for decades in the old Soviet Union. One of my past open innovation activities at Innovationedge included traveling to Moscow to assist Russia (more specifically, ISTC: in finding external partners for the huge body of invention that arose from government labs in past work (this public information: e.g., I am listed as a speaker on the published agenda of a biotech meeting in Moscow with a presentation entitled "Innovationedge Partnership to bring innovation from Russia to the U.S."). 

Unfortunately, much of that work in the Soviet Union, in my opinion, was dominated by deep drilling into highly isolated wells of expertise, with advanced technologies that were unconnected to real-world industry and markets. Creating connections and finding market opportunities after the fact (as in “answers in search of problems”) is much less efficient that developing inventions tailored to meet real market needs in the first place. The scientists were some of the best in the world, but they were working in isolation, often in great secrecy, with little ability to discuss their work with outsiders and obtain needed feedback and insights to make their work more useful outside their immediate focus. Looking back in time at the fruits of past Soviet era R&D to me looked like closed innovation to an extreme.

My observation of the isolation of Russian R&D relative to industry and markets is consistent with the detailed observation and analysis by Dina Williams in “Russia’s innovation system: reflection on the past, present and future” in The International Journal of Transitions and Innovation Systems, Vol. 1, No. 4, 2011, p. 394-412, available via at (free download with registration).

Success in open innovation and even in making conventional internal innovation more successful can be enhanced when innovators “get out more often” and increase their visibility in relevant communities. Innovation is frequently about crossing boundaries and making new connections, and open innovation almost by definition involves reaching past one’s own corporate boundaries to find solutions outside. What better way to do this than by having innovators physically or virtually stepping outside those boundaries and being visible to potential partners?

One of my favorite experiences during my days at Innovationedge involved seeing a technology go from an inventor’s garage to a multinational corporation where it is now being commercialized globally. A key event in that story involved speaking at technical conference where my presentation included some information about our client’s invention. Afterwards, I was approached by an R&D leader from a significant corporation who wanted to know more. There was much more work after this—open innovation success is rarely fast and easy—but that new connection took us on a path toward success. Related stories occur frequently when innovation is shared. But silent companies who rely on their tortoise shell eventually find that solid defense is irrelevant. Sometimes, the prizes go not to those who best hide behind their fortifications but to those who cross the finish line in the race for innovation.

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