The human mind has an incredible capacity to learn, recognize patterns, and connect pieces of information together to find new ways to approach old problems.
Unfortunately, our problem-solving abilities are limited by individual knowledge and experience. When problems are large and complex, we might not have the right data available to have any hope of finding a solution if we go it alone. And when we get stuck, collaboration can be a powerful way to find the best solution.
By sharing knowledge and experience amongst a diverse group, we can often tackle complex problems that cannot be solved alone.
In a previous article, I explored how dialogue and diversity within a group can ignite this innovative thinking. And with the right environment, talent, and process, organizational innovation can flourish.
This got me thinking: What if you simply don’t have the internal resources to support a culture of innovation? How would organizations effectively look outside of their walls for new ideas that they can potentially bring to market?
Digital and industrial giant General Electric seems to have found a solution with their crowd-powered open innovation platform, GE Fuse. Fuse harnesses the knowledge and experience of a global community of engineers to help GE customers solve major product challenges.
“The ultimate goal is to accelerate product and technology development,” says Amelia Gandara, Community Leader at Fuse. “This is truly a community of curious minds eager to apply their technical skills to a project that challenges them as engineers, scientists, and problem solvers. For example, one of our community members is a stay-at-home father with an advanced technical degree. The platform gives him a place to continue to work his skills while also taking care of his children at home.”
Engaging a diverse, global community doesn’t come without its challenges. Amelia shared several lessons for organizations looking to adopt a similar model for crowdsourcing innovation:
Understand The Experiment
“Innovation is a word that gets thrown around often, but it’s important to lay out what your company means by innovation,” says Gandara. Is it internal, or will you engage external participants? Is the goal to make product development faster, or less expensive, or both? Will the focus be on new products or enhancements to existing ones? Answering these questions can help bring clarity and alignment around your initiatives.
Learn From Each Experiment
Doing the same thing over and over again without improving and iterating is a wasted opportunity, so it’s important to learn from each experiment. For example, Fuse launched with four challenges for the community to solve. After each challenge, Amelia and team examine what was successful and what should be considered for the next challenge. “We frame each challenge structure as an experiment to see what will resonate most with our online community.”
Leadership Must Be An Ambassador
A new initiative, especially on a large-scale, is risky and can take some time to prove itself. So, it’s critical for leaders to remain a steady supporter of the cause. “It can take up to two years to see business-shifting results,” according to Gandara.
Visible support from senior leaders helps maintain the high energy momentum while you’re in the thick of it. “Leadership must be a loud ambassador, acknowledging and leaning in to the associated risk to give the rest of the team the confidence to give their full investment of time and resources.”
Alignment Between Distributed And Internal Participants
“A separate innovation initiative can feel like an assault on your current product development processes, so communicating value and sharing in the risk are crucial,” Amelia shared. Fuse, therefore, exists to enhance internal capabilities, not replace them. The platform achieves this by solving problems and taking risks that are beyond the internal teams’ capabilities.
In fact, some of GE’s more adventurous internal subject matter experts are partners. “For example, our second challenge focused jet engine inspection. A team of subject matter experts from GE Inspection Technologies and GE Aviation partnered to prepare and launch the challenge. The enthusiasm of the team is tangible, and the outcomes will be shared to help continue building excitement about the Fuse model.”
Whether or not your company can adopt a similar model largely depends on your available resources, but the benefits are undeniable. By expanding your collective knowledge and experience to stakeholders outside of your organization, you can collect a much broader spectrum of new ideas, potential risks, and feedback. It also provides your internal teams the opportunity to broaden their knowledge, sharpen their skills, and harness the power of the collective to uncover new and innovative solutions to everyday business problems.