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Don't blow it: Wishes for open innovation

Twenty years of reflection reveal challenges in innovation including motivation, communication tools, transparency, and reward

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Several years ago, I began tackling human health from a design perspective. There is no problem more human-centered and complex than a person who is physically or mentally suffering. Based on my own health challenges as well as many others, I discovered that we desperately need innovative thinking in order to understand and manage our unique health conditions. The convoluted healthcare system is fundamentally flawed. Busy doctors wield cryptic diagnoses for insurance coverage and one-size-fits-all treatment. Exhausted patients are treated with contempt and culturally pressured to entrust their lives to a monstrous system of profiteering with no checks and balances. I could not find anyone who had successfully overcome chronic disease.

As I studied and approached health based on my sacred human-centered, participatory design principles, I learned valuable lessons that can be applied to a list of wishes for open innovation:

Innovation Wish 1: Awareness must be easy and fun to spread

My first task in designing health was to heighten awareness about one's personal condition. I started a free online health tracking service at to help people compare how their symptoms changed with diet, environment, activities, and treatments. This improved many lives, but only for those willing to commit to daily entries and analysis. I quickly realized that innovation's prerequisite of awareness requires an investment of observation that can be too cumbersome or boring for many people. Innovation requires obtaining the participant's large share of interest in the process and product.

Innovation Wish 2: Participants must enjoy the process

My next goal in promoting health was to provide personalized coaching using my new education in nutrition, herbology, and holistic health. I hypothesized that neatly organized, customized health reports based on client-driven input would improve awareness and increase chances of healthy change. Yet, while my clients' awareness greatly increased, there was little interest in using the static product – a dense document discussing disease and lots of unsavory health food. The report also became obsolete as client symptoms and test results changed. Innovation must remain an incomplete, enjoyable process in order to address problems in constant flux.

Innovation Wish 3: Help negotiate realistic expectations for change

I have always asked clients to rate their willingness to change their diet and lifestyle on a scale of 0-10. Even in the face of chronic disease, the results are usually between four and seven. And over time, I discovered that seven translates to "not much." With a few exceptions, older clients showed more resistance to making changes than younger ones. In order to help clients feel that they were making progress, I had to lower expectations and set extremely modest goals. When innovation calls for openness to change from a wary audience, strategies may be required to create a perception of less change.

Innovation Wish 4: Increase the quality and usefulness of forums

I studied how health forums engage people and provide a venue for open innovation around personal health. In forums, people enjoy sharing and feeling understood by fellow contributors. A wide variety of ideas are exchanged, though they can be cluttered with intense emotions, irrelevant notes, and unscientific claims. There is a lack of credible experts, as doctors often avoid (and discourage) online interaction around health issues. For 17 years, approached this problem by ranking natural remedies by their effectiveness according to posted user input. Their scholarly contributor from Thailand fills the gap for visitors seeking a voice of experience. Open innovation may enjoy long-term positive impact when exchanges feature moderation, sortable content, and transparency of research and authorship.

Innovation Wish 5: Call out valuable aspects within concepts 

Even though suffering cannot motivate some people to change their habits, there is a glimmer of hope in the darkness. People who discover their own clues to health problems appear more motivated to pursue change. Successful sharing of these discoveries can amplify the effect, particularly when there is personal acknowledgement. I have learned the value of highlighting specific discoveries made by my blog readers to encourage progress. Participants in open innovation may stay more engaged when others rate or respond to very specific attributes of their contributions.

Innovation Wish 6: Redefine innovation as needed

Outside of my peripheral career in health, I manage a software company where I've learned many more lessons. While studying industrial design in the mid '90s, I conducted field research on the latest prototyping methods employed at Apple, Hewlett-Packard, IDEO, and other design firms. The grand conclusion was that the future of innovation would depend on the success of participatory design where collaborating designers and end users partner in the process of design, testing, and iteration. While I gleefully jumped into entrepreneurship out of college and grew a software company founded entirely on these principles, our proud practice of participatory design has been forced to evolve. Our users no longer have the time or depth of input that they afforded 20 years ago, even with extravagant perks and simple surveys. Today we must engage in a sort of passive participatory design – a process where users let us discreetly track, record, and analyze their experience with our products without interfering with their daily business. Innovation is now merging design and development in constant flux, and users expect changes on demand.

Innovation Wish 7: Make innovation more approachable and rewarding

My latest project through OpenIDEO endured similar resistance from potential partners and participants. I used all forms of social media, email, and phone calls to invite experts in education to review the new challenge. While I could not elicit a personal response among any professional, others were willing to take my survey anonymously. As the concept evolved, organizations who were positioned to directly benefit were interested in participating. Open innovation can benefit from a variety of tools and tactics to help participants incentivize their efforts to engage their community.

Ultimately the initial rejection helped me improve my business model so that it was not dependent on colleges and administrators. But I continued to be conflicted about the role of the sponsor. Why are they part of the idea selection process if they are not financially supporting top ideas? Why doesn't OpenIDEO help participants beyond the concept development phase? How can we avoid the sensation of being watched like a lab mouse in a maze experiment? Open innovation needs transparency, even if it involves acknowledging a lack of it.

The future of innovation is open, but we have a new world of problems to solve when trying to engage busy people coping with daily life. People have become increasingly sensitive to comments and criticisms, and there are few tools that help people overcome challenges with writing, sketching, and presentation. I visualize a more comprehensive suite of online ideation tools that takes someone gently through problem identification, gathered research, concept development, name ideas, experience maps, graphic support, survey building, marketing and networking, and progressive feedback. Users would be able to select unique privacy levels for collaborators, mentors, and sponsors. Ample resources and guidelines would facilitate planning businesses and nonprofit organizations. Mentors, moderators, and milestones are critical throughout the process, but full-featured tools and financial rewards are absolutely necessary to retain and empower serious participants.

May our wishes come true!

If you'd like your name to appear in our report on open innovation, please include it below as you'd like it to appear.

Shari Cheves


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