Collaborating with external talent to innovate: Insights from InnoSchool — During

Mar 4 · 5 min read

This blog post is part of a series about collaborating with external talent in Open Innovation programs.

Having a program in place helps to bring structure to open innovation. However, efforts are required from the company partners’ side to make the program work. Company partners need to understand that their role does not stop with providing a compelling innovation challenge and funding a program. To unlock real value from open innovation, their commitment should be beyond financial. Here, we describe best practices in the relationship between company partners and teams during Open Innovation programs based on our experience at InnoSchool.

InnoSchool 2019 participants discussing expectations from the company partners

Manage expectations

After the most promising candidates have been selected, expectations need to be discussed. Moderated group sessions in the form of world-café are an effective way to go through individual expectations. These are four sets of expectations that need to be addressed:

  • From the company: These set of expectations include what participants expect from the company partners. It may relate to behaviors and attitudes, as well as support in terms of expertise and specialized equipment.
  • From the team members: Expectations from other team members are mostly concerned with ways of working and relating to each other. This set of expectations is especially relevant as a basis to set norms in the program and to discuss key elements to be included in the form of a program manifesto.
  • From the learning experience: Training is an important reason for internal and external participants to join open innovation programs. However, learning goals across participants may vary. It is important to get an understanding of the learning expectations at the beginning of the program in order to adjust the educational offer, if needed, and to compare them with the learning outcomes in the end.
  • From the program: Expectations from the program include the overall experience that participants aim to have. This involves cultural and recreational activities that can be organized alongside the project work in order to bond participants and connect them with the broader ecosystem.

After expectations have been discussed, a debriefing moment helps to clarify and align expectations among participants. Collective expectations have then to be presented to the company partners and be compared to the final outcomes. Therefore, it is advisable to document them digitally or keep them insight into the location where the program takes place. Discussing expectations early on helps to make adjustments to the program and allow company partners to get to know participants better.

One of the company partners’ employees providing feedback on the prototype

Provide availability and support

Company partners’ engagement is key to the success of open innovation initiatives. Having an ongoing dialogue between companies and teams is beneficial for both sides. Company partners get deeper insights into the complexity of the innovation challenge and they learn new approaches to address the challenge. Teams receive helpful feedback and they can use the time during the program more effectively. Some recommendations for company partners to engage in the progress involve:

  • Be responsive: The fast pace of development of open innovation projects require responsiveness from the company side. At InnoSchool, we involved company partners bi-weekly for update meetings. These were mostly constructive moments for the teams. At the same time, there were instances were substantial set-backs were needed due to misalignments between teams and company partners’ perspectives. To solve this issue, one of the participants suggested that company partners should “just come and be in the team”[1] more frequently and join in an informal way. Although this is not always possible due to the capacity of company partners in key leadership positions, organizing the program in proximity to their workplace may be a way to increase spontaneous interactions.
  • Involve employees: While it is important to involve key decision-makers as company partners, open innovation programs benefit from greater involvement of employees at different levels of the organization too. Especially in the case of specific technical needs, internal employees should be available to contribute to the project and provide their expertise. To illustrate this point, consider the requirement of one InnoSchool team for AI expertise. A participant was positively surprised by the availability of company experts upon request: “it was good if you consider special technologies like image recognition and you have that expertise in the company that you just can call these guys”[2].
  • Enable connections: Company partners are established organizations with well-developed networks of partners, customers, and suppliers. The first phase of open innovation programs, when the focus is on customer development, benefit greatly from the access to such a network. With the backing of company partners, open innovation teams may pile up customer development interviews faster and save time during the process of data collection needed to verify their assumptions about the product.
  • Provide complimentary resources: Finally, company partners may support open innovation programs by unlocking required resources that were not foreseen in the first place. This is especially relevant for hardware projects that require specific components, such as sensors and drivers that may already be available within the company.
One of the company partners during an alignment meeting at InnoSchool 2019

Balance guidance with flexibility

One important dimension of the company’s involvement is to give a direction to the open innovation team. From our experience, companies struggle to balance clarity in the definition of the innovation objective and flexibility in the execution. There has to be an understanding that both are needed. On one side, it is important to be clear regarding the innovation problem. On the other side, it is crucial to provide teams the freedom to interpret the problem and explore possible solutions. Ambiguity from the company side may result in uncertainty in the decision-making process. As remarked by one of the external participants: “The real hard part is to figure out what the company partners want. They want something, but they do not know what this thing is”[3]. The unclarity from the company partners’ side on important aspects of the projects may generate delays in the decision-making process. “some of the challenges with the lack of alignment with the company partner and us created some lack of progress as well”[4].


[1] Personal interview with Smart Kitchen InnoSchool participant 2019

[2] Personal interview with Smart Kitchen InnoSchool participant 2019

[3] Personal interview with Smart Kitchen InnoSchool participant 2019

[4] Personal interview with Chef Platform InnoSchool participant 2019


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InnoInsights aims to be a source of inspiration and guidance for how organizations can collaborate with external innovators.

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