NASA’s Space Life Sciences Directorate began it’s open innovation journey/mission over 10 years ago. Researchers examined the results to closely track and study the opportunities and challenges involved with open innovation in an R&D organization over time. They also tracked NASA’s attempts at solving 14 different innovation problems using both a traditional collaborative R&D model, led by NASA’s in-house experts, as well as online open innovation platforms that leveraged crowdsourcing platforms to offer challenges to non-domain experts.
The Results Were a Win for NASA’s Open Innovation Efforts
Researchers found within the first year that using open innovation and crowdsourcing platforms led to relatively fast solutions. Three of the 14 issues were solved quickly, with one solution being found in as little as three months. It quickly became clear that a compelling argument for using open innovation could be made.
Yet it Was Met with Resistance
One of the things that surprised the researchers the most was the resistance NASA encountered when trying to implement the newly found, open-source solutions. Researchers admitted it took them months to figure out what was holding up the implementation process.
It turns out that the internal solutions teams at NASA — those who were tasked with solving innovation issues — were hesitant to implement the solutions provided by the outside network of solvers. Some of the reasons encountered included issues involving budget, process and procedures.
The solutions were there, but the will to use them was not.
After months of observation and study, researchers discovered the core issue behind the resistance: some internal scientists and engineers believed open innovation to be a threat to their identity as problem solvers for the organization. This issue was so compelling that researchers remained at NASA for two more years to learn more about it and find a solution.
The Solution to the Problem of Implementing Crowdsourced Solutions
The underlying problem was one of identity. NASA scientists viewed themselves as “problem solvers.” But if the problems were being solved by those outside the organization, it presented an existential issue for internal problem solver? How can a problem solver be a problem solver if they are outsourcing their innovation solutions?
The Difference Between Being a Problem Solver and a Solution Seeker
The solution to this existential conundrum lied in how organizations like NASA define and reward their internal teams of scientists and engineers. If innovators are seen as problem solvers, their entire purpose is to solve the issues themselves. They are rewarded for creating and implementing a solution. But, if they are defined as “solution seekers,” they can expand their own personal and professional value by being additionally tasked with finding solutions. The organization is not solely relying on them to solve the problem, they are relying on them to find the solution by whatever means needed. This opens the door to the benefits of open innovation. Internal innovation teams should be rewarded for finding solutions even if they leverage outside sources and problem solver networks. This allows scientists to take a step back and focus on the big picture of “how can the issue be solved?” rather than the more personal issue of “how can I solve the issue?”
The Lab is My World vs. The World is my Lab
Open innovation presents a whole new world of resources for innovation teams. When internal scientists focus on finding, rather than creating, solutions, and are rewarded for doing so, success can be found quickly. It’s incumbent upon organizations to reward innovation teams who learn to step outside the lab and find solutions wherever they can.
Read the full NASA study here.