Is Collaboration or Competition Better for Innovation?

by Stephen Shapiro

Collaborative or Competitive Innovation?At the Open Innovation Summit last week, I had a lively conversation with a few individuals. The debate was about which model of open innovation is most effective – competitive or collaborative.

Kevin Boudreau and Karim Lakhani wrote an excellent article earlier this year in the MIT Sloane Management Review on this very topic. They looked at the merits of each form of open innovation. I encourage you to read the article as it addresses factors like intrinsic and extrinsic forms of motivation.

InnoCentive uses both forms of open innovation in different environments.

Their ‘marketplace’ model is competitive. That is, when posting challenges to their network of 185,000 experts, the solvers cannot see any of the other solutions. One reason for using this model is that the intellectual property needs to be protected.

This is in contrast to InnoCentive’s @Work product which is used to broadcast challenges internally to employees. With this product, solutions are provided in a collaborative fashion where solvers can see all responses. Given that only employees are participating, intellectual property issues are not as critical.

The competition/collaboration debate reminds me of the Miller Lite commercials – “Tastes Great…Less Filling.”

It also reminds me of the hand dryer versus paper towel debate (in terms of efficacy – not impact on the environment, which is a different debate).

After much experimentation, I have the long awaited answer: Use paper towels first followed by the hand dryer. The paper towel gets off most of the water so that the hand dryer can quickly evaporate the remaining liquid. The best solution for drying your hands is not one approach, but a combination of the two… in the right order.

I believe that the answer is the same for the competition versus the collaboration debate. It is not an either/or proposition.

From my experience, you start with competition followed by collaboration. Here’s why:

If you start with collaboration, you end up with “group think” very quickly. That is, as soon as the first idea is thrown out, it tends to influence the thinking of the other contributors. This narrows the set of ideas that are typically generated. Therefore, if you start with a competition, you get the broadest set of ideas possible.

Then, after selecting the winners of the competition, you take the best ideas and allow a collaborative community to flesh them out. This gives you get a much richer solution in the end.

This approach models the most effective way of running brainstorming sessions. It works best when you first have each person independently write down their own creative ideas. Only after everyone generates their own list does the group come together. Then they share ideas, select the best ones, and expand upon those best ideas collaboratively. Individual thought followed by group throught. Competition followed by collaboration.

IMHO, the same is holds true for open innovation.

Of course there are a variety of factors that may require the use of one approach over the other (e.g., intellectual property protection), but there are even ways to address that. But more on that in another blog post.

P.S. I’m serious about using paper towels first followed by the hand dryer…
P.P.S. If you are not aware, I am InnoCentive’s Chief Innovation Evangelist.

Stephen ShapiroStephen Shapiro is the author of three books, a popular innovation speaker, and is the Chief Innovation Evangelist for Innocentive, the leader in Open Innovation.

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