Engaging end users in co-creation deepens the bonds between the organization and them. The activity can deliver economic value to all parties involved. In this article innovation architect Doug Collins highlights the critical questions that campaign teams will want to address when they pursue externally focused collaboration.

In a past article I provided a framework for thinking about the practice of collaborative innovation. I recommended that people new to the practice start their journey by pursuing the internally focused, enquiry-led form (figure 1).

Figure 1: forms and areas of focus for the practice of collaborative innovation

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Learning how to craft the critical question (the enquiry), form the community, and develop commitment between sponsor and member takes time. New practitioners benefit by honing their skills with an internal, presumably more forgiving audience ahead of wading into the deeper waters of externally focused innovation with clients. The complexities that define the supplier-vendor relationship do not intrude, internally. The administrative and promotional overhead stays more manageable, internally.

In time, however, you will want to explore ways to take your practice outside the organization and pursue the external focus. Co-creation through collaborative innovation remains the most profound, authentic way of engaging with clients and their end users. Studies by Von Hippel and others find that 10-40% of end users pro-actively innovate on (e.g., customize) commercially available products. Engaging this group in collaborative innovation yields valuable ideas on what it means to deliver value.

Looking ahead, I expect that organizations that have grown frustrated with social media as a means to grow closer to their clients and users will, over the next couple years, integrate the enquiry-led form of collaborative innovation. The days of counting likes and page views as a measure of engagement have come to a close. We see, by way of example, firms such as Cisco and Mattel’s Fisher-Price subsidiary pursuing this path with their recently launched, externally facing BIG Awards and My FP Ideas  challenges, respectively.

In this article I highlight the critical questions that campaign teams must decide when planning externally focused collaborative innovation.

Name Your Goal

Campaign teams that dive into the mechanics of launching an externally facing challenge without first reaching a shared understanding of its purpose risk sowing ambiguity amongst themselves and their end-user participants later. Why are we here? Where are we going?

The campaign team makes two critical decisions on this front.

  • What question, were we to pursue it fully with clients and end users, would lead to breakthroughs in our level of engagement with them and the ways in which we deliver value?
  • Do we solicit ideas that we want to pursue internally or do we solicit ideas that we would help the contributor pursue by funding them or by providing other means of support?

On the first point, I advise campaign teams to go for the jugular: ask the one question most central to the business or the brand that resonates with the largest swath of the user community. We see Fisher-Price take this approach, for example: they clearly solicit ideas about baby toys, which ties closely to their brand and their users.

On the second point, the campaign team must decide whether the innovation campaign serves as a source of compelling ideas that they choose to develop or that they support the contributor in developing. Cisco, for example, chose the latter path. They use the BIG Awards to encourage entrepreneurialism at large in the United Kingdom (figure 2).

Figure 2: goal-setting on the front end of an externally focused innovation campaign

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Name Your Community

Organizations express surprise at the extent to which users form formal and informal networks around their offer or brand. They form chapters. Users compare notes at trade fairs. They create email list services. They start LinkedIn groups. The digital age gives the networks visibility, boosting their participation. The networks often operate outside the influence of the organization itself.

As a first step towards identifying their community, the people designing the external innovation campaign will want to take time to explore and map the networks their users have created. Some organizations may have done so by way of soliciting participation in customer and executive advisory boards, for example.

The lead users that you identify through the mapping exercise serve as candidates for a mini-advisory board for the campaign in question—perhaps for a series of campaigns (figure 3).

Figure 3: finding user candidates to offer guidance on the external campaign

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They provide invaluable end user perspective on the nature of the question and the associated commitment between the organization and the innovation community. They serve as peer-level advocates for the campaign with their fellow users. Properly trained, they can serve as moderators during the campaigns.

I admit my surprise by how often organizations will go far down the path of developing an external innovation campaign without having involved a leading subset of the very group they hope will participate. At times I sense concern in terms of who owns the relationship with the user. This concern can cause the campaign team to defer engaging with the organization’s lead users during planning: a rather large, missed opportunity.

Name Your Commitment

Campaign teams must tend to two items on the commitment front as they plan their external innovation challenge: the nature of the contribution they seek and the need for promotional support by a capable marketer.

Relative to the nature of the contribution, campaign teams can request fully formed ideas in response to the question. They can also request fully formed business plans. I see the latter request in cases where the organization proposes to fund the contributor’s idea to concept by way of offering a prize.

All entrepreneurs may be lead users; not all lead users are entrepreneurs.

Either approach can work. However, I find that campaign teams overestimate the number of people who have developed a business plan—or who can create one in short order—which they can in turn submit to the challenge. Whereas Von Hippel finds that 10-40% of the people in user communities engage in innovation (e.g., customizing the organization’s offer), a fraction behave as entrepreneurs. All entrepreneurs may be lead users; not all lead users are entrepreneurs.

To this end, I encourage campaign teams to consider asking the users to commit to contributing a fully formed idea to start. The commitment that the organization makes in turn in this case is to explore the potential that the idea represents. Does the idea explore a problem worth solving? Does the idea offer relative advantage over the status quo?

Co-discovery and co-creation with the organization and the peer community of users can serve as the most compelling prize to the contributor. Digital age trends suggest that organizations that master this form of engagement with their users, while acknowledging the economic value it delivers to all parties, have the greatest chance of remaining relevant and viable.

On the subject of promotional support, I recommend that the campaign team secure the full-time services of on experienced marketer for the length of the challenge, from planning to resolution. This individual articulates the goals for co-creation, identifies the disparate places where users gather so that they can receive this information, and engages them in dialogue throughout the campaign.

Organizations who take a “build it and they will come” approach underestimate the amount of work needed to solicit contributions from the target population of end users. The external form of collaborative innovation requires a lot more promotion than the internal equivalent. The former does not benefit from the natural incentives to participate and the grapevines of information that aid the latter.

Parting Thoughts

Depending on their backgrounds, campaign team members may have limited experience engaging their organization’s clients and users, directly. To this end and by way of a parting thought, I encourage people who embark on the external form of the practice to buy a copy of Eric Von Hippel’s Democratizing Innovation. Von Hippel describes the potential and the rationale for customer co-creation in rich, readable detail. He offers useful perspective that can deepen your engagement with your own users—first with your advisory board and then with the larger population of lead users.

By Doug Collins

About the Author:

Doug Collins is an Innovation Architect who has specialized in the fuzzy front end of innovation for over 15 years. He has served a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question.
As an author, Doug explores the critical questions relating to innovation in his book Innovation Architecture, Practical Approaches to Theory, Collaboration and Implementation. The book offers a blueprint for collaborative innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management.