How to build collaboration in Open Innovation teams

Feb 22 · 11 min read

Collaboration is a fundamental aspect in the life of every project team, even more so in the highly fuzzy open innovation context. We present insights on how to build successful collaborations based on our experience running InnoSchool — a three months open innovation program in Dornbirn, Austria. InnoSchool supports companies and external talent working towards a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as a first step to build innovative products, services, and business models.

InnoSchool 2019 cohort at graduation

Clarify roles and responsibilities

When people join the program, it has to be clear what their roles and responsibilities within the team will be. At InnoSchool, we recruited participants with backgrounds in product management, UX design, and software engineering. Initially, we involved everybody in defining project objectives and which line to follow. In time, we realized that this was inefficient since it took away productive work time from the participants who needed it most, such as software engineers and designers. In particular, one participant observed: “we would have more progress if we quickly divided and understood each other’s roles more rapidly.” Hence, we decided to enforce the scrum process more strictly. In particular, we assigned participants the following roles:

  • Product Owner: In agile settings, product owners are responsible for the vision of the product under development. They make decisions regarding the prioritization of features in the team’s backlog. The role of the product owner may not be easy to enforce at the beginning of an open innovation project. Especially during the ideation phase, a tension may emerge between having a single decision-maker and collecting inputs from the different people involved. At InnoSchool, we assigned product owner roles after a few weeks from the start. This was not an easy task since we had both internal employees and external participants who joined as product managers. Finally, we ended up letting the teams decide how to organize based on the existing ways of working and the type of project. In the Chef Platform team, the product owner role was split between two external participants, while in the Smart Kitchen team, the internal product owner took on the role. The difference between teams is a result of the type of innovation. The chef platform team was tasked with developing a product entirely outside the core business of the company partners. In contrast, the Smart Kitchen team worked on a product that was initiated internally, and the product manager was a part of it.
  • Scrum Master: Scrum masters act as facilitators of agile development. They work with product managers to make sure the team progresses in the direction that has been agreed upon. At InnoSchool, the role of scrum master was distributed across different participants. In particular, we observed a division between two “types” of scrum masters. On one side, those who took on a more technical role, making sure there would be progress towards completing the backlog and managed the collaborative software. On the other hand, those who actively worked to complete the tasks needed for the advancement of the project. The need for a separation of roles may have emerged from the fact the InnoSchool projects were not strictly speaking software development projects as it is often the case in agile contexts.

Clarifying roles and responsibilities is useful to establish decision-making lines. At the same time, it helps program participants to advance in their careers by deepening the understanding of roles and responsibilities in scrum settings. It is essential that the assignment of roles and responsibilities happen in a shared discussion, where everybody agrees on the reasons behind the tasks.

InnoSchool 2019 participants working on their idea

Establish routines and stick to them

Routines are a powerful means of team formation. Establishing routines normalize collaboration and build unity and respect for each other in the team. Moreover, routines help to support the program structure and ensure the process is followed. The following routines inspired by agile methods may be implemented:

  • Weekly planning & reviews: Working in an agile way requires careful prioritization of weekly objectives based on a backlog of issues to address. For this reason, the plan is fundamental. At InnoSchool, we met every Monday for a planning session that everybody should have attended. At the same time, we failed to review the outcomes of the week with the same regularity. Due to workshops and people leaving earlier, we sometimes had to combine planning and reviews at the beginning of the following week. Making sure that the first and last days of the week is free for planning and retrospectives is a significant learning that we plan to implement in the next iteration.
  • Daily stand-ups: Daily stand-ups are brief team meetings to discuss the status of weekly objectives and define the goals of the day. Usually, daily stand-ups are self-moderated by the teams. At InnoSchool, we struggled with enforcing the daily stand-up routine for two reasons: first, we had several workshops starting early in the morning; second, many participants showed up late. The teams began to embrace daily stand-up only towards the end of the program. “During the final weeks, we did very effective daily meetings like actual stand-up meetings, not sit down meetings. It was an effective practice for me because we talked only about the essentials, and we got through to the goal”.
  • Group retrospectives: Group retrospectives are tools to collectively reflect on what worked and did not work in the teamwork during the week. After the weekly outcomes are reviewed vis-à-vis the objectives, it is crucial to dedicate time to understand what could be improved or done differently. The scrum master usually moderates group retrospectives. However, it is good practice to provide everybody the opportunity to give their opinion. For instance, a two minutes rule for each participant’s feedback may be established. At InnoSchool, we ran group retrospectives after participants had reflected individually in written form, to let them start to collect thoughts independently.
InnoSchool 2019 experiencing the Bregenzer Wald, Western Austria

Create bonds

Team building is a fundamental component of innovation work. Although having the right skills in place is essential, performance goes beyond that. It is critical to make sure that external and internal talent can work with each other effectively.

Moreover, the larger dimension of the program should be considered. As was the case in InnoSchool, few company partners may participate at once. This entails that more than one team take part in the program at the same time. To generate value from joint participation, building connections across teams is essential as well. Some practical ways to create bonds among participants include:

  • Dedicate time to team building: Open innovation programs experience high pressure to deliver outcomes fast. The case of InnoSchool was no exception. On one side, we felt compelled to start working on the projects as soon as possible. On the other hand, we realized that facilitating socialization among participants of the program would be necessary. Therefore, we organized a series of ice-breaking activities on the first morning before the official opening of the program. This compromising approach was not as practical as we wished since the activities were organized at InnoSchool, and participants felt intimidated on the very first day. One of the participants later pointed out that “at least one day of team building should be invested in the future.” Possibly, the day should be spent outside the Open Innovation program premises and promote socialization not just within but also across teams at the beginning of the program.
  • Share meals: Eating together helps to create bonds among participants. As one of the participants pointed out that “making meals together from early on translated to us being able to collaborate more effectively, more efficiently in the workspace.” Having a shared kitchen in the workspace is a way to promote interactions in a more informal environment and stimulate serendipitous conversations among participants.
  • Organize and attend events: Joining events together is an excellent way to take a break from the program and to strengthen healthy relationships among participants. At times, it can also provide new inspirations and insights by further opening up to other communities of experts and innovators. During InnoSchool, we organized several events, such as weekly meetups and a corporate hackathon. The hackathon was deemed particularly useful, and suggestions were advanced to hold one earlier. The teams participated in other hackathons independently, proving this is a valuable and useful way to explore different innovation ecosystems and reinforce team building at the same time.
  • Spend time outside: Changing settings may bring outbursts of motivation in the team. Most of our participants were not from the region, and it was essential to introduce them to the regional environment, culture, and nature. Establishing a cultural connection with the region where the program is hosted increases the chances that international talent would be willing to relocate.
  • Show appreciation: Identifying improvement points and promoting a culture of healthy critique is essential to provide participants with growth opportunities. However, this might become demotivating in periods of high stress. On the contrary, showing appreciation for each other can turn stressful moments in opportunities to reflect on the strengths of the team and turnaround the situation. This can be done informally or as a shared practice. One of the participants of InnoSchool suggested introducing “appreciation showers” — rounds of complimenting to each other — in order to bring the team back together anytime there were frictions.
The entrance of InnoSchool at Platform-V space in Dornbirn, Western Austria

Build a shared culture

Building a shared culture is a daunting task. On one side, the internal employees can be unused to being outside the company. On the other hand, the external participants can struggle to identify with an entity that has yet to come about. The creation of culture starts with the design of the space, and it evolves as soon as the team begins engaging with each other in such space. These are some measures that may be adopted in order to build a shared culture:

  • Create a brand: Open innovation programs are organized to break free of corporate norms. Imposing a corporate brand too forcefully might make participants feel intimidated and unable to find the freedom to break schemes. At the same time, brands help to convey a sense of belonging. For these reasons, creating an independent brand for the program might be of help. At InnoSchool, we decided to build a brand that represents the union of companies and external innovators through two interlocking rings. The workspace was decorated with numerous branded items, such as banners showcasing the InnoSchool process.
The InnoSchool Manifesto signed by participants
  • Draft a manifesto: Having a manifesto stating fundamental values, behaviors, and rules is a powerful reminder of what the open innovation program stands for. Involving participants in drafting the Manifesto is a good practice to build ownership. Multiple copies of the Manifesto should be printed and placed in plain sight. For instance, at InnoSchool, one copy of the Manifesto was stapled on the door of the fridge to remind the participants they should respect each other in the use of the kitchen. Speaking English to build inclusivity and to avoid parallel conversations between people sharing the same nationality. A Manifesto can be further used to effectively communicate the culture and norms of the program to the mentors and visitors.
  • Engage participants in communication activities: Engaging talent in the communication activities of the program is another way to promote ownership. Participants may be given administrative rights to social media accounts, and they can be encouraged to share their stories through their own accounts. This is a good way for participants to understand that they are part of a unique culture in the program and to present it to externals via their behaviors and actions.
Happy lemon by one of the InnoSchool 2019 participants

Manage conflict

Open innovation programs are intense engagements. A number of challenges may surface. Managing conflict is pivotal to the success of the program. Team diversity is an asset, which might generate friction at the same time. Conflict management also includes its prevention to avoid disruptions to teamwork. Some tools that can be used to effectively prevent and manage conflict include:

  • Individual retrospectives: Individual retrospectives are written weekly reflections that participants submit to program coordinators. At InnoSchool, we asked participants to address four points: what worked, what did not work, what were the most significant learnings, and what were the planned next steps. Finally, participants could numerically express satisfaction for the outcomes of the week and include additional comments. Retrospectives are useful for both participants and program managers. Reflecting helps participants to take a step back from the realm of action and immediate feelings. It encourages to identify issues and challenges and focus on how they can be solved. At the same time, program managers get a better understanding of team and project dynamics and, if needed, intervene through support and mediation.
  • Coaching: In times of high uncertainty and high pressure, coaching serves a pivotal role. Unfortunately, due to the resources available for the first iteration of InnoSchool, we could not dedicate one coach per team. However, we intend to cover this critical need the next time the program runs.
  • Conflict workshop: Conflict workshops are workshops facilitated by professionals in non-confrontational settings. This type of workshop usually lasts one day, and they can be combined with leisure activities, such as walks and hikes. During InnoSchool, we organized one conflict workshop to curb emerging tensions in the teams. It was later reported by one participant that “it would be beneficial to have the conflict workshop earlier” in order to prepare for conflict, instead of doing it as an emergency measure.
  • Replacement of team members: Sometimes, it is not possible to solve a conflict. Whenever one team member is perceived as disruptive by his or her team for several weeks in a row, it is crucial to have an open discussion about what he or she is willing to change. The discussion should get to the root of the problem. If no signs of future change emerge, managers of the program should consider replacing the team member. The decision should not be rushed, but it should be timely. Open innovation programs require full commitment and cohesion. One single participant not contributing or disrupting teamwork may have a significant impact on the overall progress of the team project.

To conclude, the design of a successful Open Innovation projects is linked to the ability of program managers to foster collaboration among the team members. At InnoSchool, we are at the beginning of this journey, but we hope that our learnings and tips from running Cohort #1 will be useful to other program managers. Learn more about InnoSchool on our website.


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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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