Crowdsourcing big thinking – the Innovation Collective is the world’s first peer-to-peer corporate problem-solving platform

Ask any major company and they’ll tell you: innovation is among their top priorities. Ask them again how easy said innovation is and they’ll also tell you: innovation is hard. Someone’s doing something about that however.

Christoph Drefers, one of the brains behind Pass The Idea – a cloud-based innovation and collaboration platform focused on ideation that uses the wisdom of the crowd to produce creative solutions around a specific challenge – is bringing together some of the country’s most successful companies for a creative cross-industry collaboration co-operative called the Innovation Collective. 

Image: Pass The Idea founders, Christoph Drefers (left) and Richard Lee. Photo: Sim Ahmed

The Innovation Collective unites companies in the cloud to anonymously, collectively brainstorm around a particular challenge being faced by one company. The ideas produced are then refined, revised and built upon by the group, and presented to the challenger to do with as they see fit. Think of it as the crowdsourcing of big thinking from successful companies in a non-competitive, open-source way.

The first company to participate as challenger for the Innovation Collective is Coca Cola Amatil New Zealand, which recently posed the question: “How can we get better at innovation?”

Coming on board to offer their take on that question was New Zealand heavy-hitters BNZ, 2Degrees, Fisher & Paykel, Icebreaker, Kellogg, Goodman Fielder, McDonalds, Aecom and McCormick.

The results are in and the numbers are currently being crunched, so Idealog sat down with general manager of strategy and brand of the challenger, Coca-Cola Amatil NZ's Wendy Rayner, and Brendon Fry, ‎head of insight at 2degrees Mobile, to get their take on the Innovation Collective, the crowdsourcing of industry wisdom and the trouble with creativity.

Idealog: Wendy, how did Coca-Cola Amatil get involved as a challenger in this project?

Wendy Rayner, Coca-Cola Amatil: We have been really interested in how we can get better at innovation. I’ve worked with Christoph in the past, particularly with Pass The Idea, which is an amazing crowdsourcing tool, and he said ‘What about going beyond your staff? If diversity is the key to innovation, let’s take it further. I’ve got this idea to create a collective of non-competing diverse businesses’. So we said ‘yes please’.

This is the first time we’ve partnered with other businesses or gone external on innovation at all. What I like about Pass The Idea is its simple, it’s fun, and from my experience, it comes out with good ideas.

We talk about innovation all the time, but not that many people understand the fundamentals of it. Christoph is one of the few people, one of the only people I’ve come across, who can break it down for you, help you understand it, and create a tool to help you do it.

Image: Wendy Rayner, general manager strategy and brand, Coca-Cola Amatil.

Idealog: So from the perspective of the challenger, how has this Innovation Collective challenge played out?

Wendy Rayner: Coca Cola’s brief was around how we could be more innovative as a business. The first set of people involved then come up with a bunch of different ideas that meet that need. Their answers go to a different group of people and those people are then asked to build on those ideas – all completely anonymously. Then you have a third group of people – we asked our senior leaders – and they evaluate all of those ideas, all 750 of them. They created a shortlist from there, and then we asked them: ‘if you had a million dollars to invest, which of these ideas would you invest in?’ They then spend that imaginary money any way they choose amongst the top ten ideas. I then get a list of those top ten ideas and the total dollars bid.

Idealog: Brendon, what’s in it from the respondent’s perspective? Why bother?

Brendon Fry: I’m an inquisitive person, so, for me, it’s just a really interesting exercise. Innovation and new ideas – that’s interesting. When I went into this, I saw that it’s a different company you're dealing with, a different context. You know nothing about it what you’re getting into, but you’re coming up with ideas, applying your mind-set to something different. What you’re coming up with, the process you’re using in your thinking as you think about another business’s issues, you’re thinking ‘some of those problems are applicable to what I’m doing’, and you get to actually pull some of that thinking back into our own business. It’s about breaking your reference point, so you start coming up with new ideas that can be applied to your own company. The thinking is transferable.

My belief is that everyone’s got ideas, and [The Innovation Collective] is all about pointing brains at a topic in a way where you get great, directed ideas. Because without direction, creating ideas can be a big waste of energy and a big sapper of motivation and engagement. If someone says ‘here’s a great idea and here’s another great idea,’ and then those ideas are not acted upon or not directed at some challenge, then people stop giving their energy to it because nothing ever comes to fruition.

Image: Brendon Fry, ‎head of insight, 2degrees Mobile

Idealog: Is this formalising something that already exists? Is this kind of platform something any business could emulate?

Wendy Rayner
: I don’t think it contingent on the platform. We have other customers and preferred suppliers, and we have brainstorming sessions to think of ways we can do things better in the partnership. But we would tend to spend 16 to 20 hours in workshops, sometimes with very senior people, whose time is very important to the company, so one of the big things the Innovation Collective brings is [efficiency around] the time spent on it. You start to get efficient with the resources you’re throwing at it.

Brendon Fry: Coverage is the other benefit - getting eight people from these really different companies to commit 30 minutes together. To do this any other way, to get together in a room, to order that cohesion, and say ‘were going to get 300 ideas out of this’, it would be chaos. Having an online tool means you can bring a lot of people together in a very cohesive way.

Wendy Rayner: Part of the magic for me is the inclusiveness of the platform. It’s not just that it’s a great tool and it’s fun and easy. It’s the fact that you know you’re participating with a bunch of random people – which I mean in the nicest possible way. As the ideas that came through for judging, I didn’t know where they came from and what that person does for a job, and it just didn’t matter. It was just completely inclusive and diverse. And there’s not that many things in business that are like that. That anonymity allows for this wonderful level playing field.

Idealog: Is that the reason the platform seems so effective? That part of the benefit of the platform is the result of getting rid of some of the social aspects of face-to-face collaboration – ie the stronger personalities that can dominate a conversation? Is that something that it is worthwhile to remove when you're trying to be creative?

Wendy Rayner: I think so. I think any strong personality, because of hierarchy or anything else, can really bias a group, and people who are quieter may have fantastic ideas but not the confidence to speak up.

Brendon Fry: I run research focus groups and one the biggest and hardest tasks of the moderator is to make the opinionated guy shut up, because they can drown out really valuable input, ideas and contributions that other people have.

Wendy Rayner: It’s often the people who aren’t animated and opinionated that have the great ideas. We’ve had a couple of amazing brand concepts come from our finance team, for instance. Unless you can create that space where people are comfortable and confident to speak up, you’re just going to miss out on those ideas.

Idealog: Why is innovation in business so hard?

Brendon Fry: I asked a few people around me that question – ‘why is innovation hard?’ – and everyone I talked to had a different answer. It seems to mean different things to different people. I think innovation means that someone has to say ‘I’m going to break myself away from the normal confines, the normal constructs of what I usually do, the system I usually use and the people I usually interact with, and take a step into a risky territory.’ With innovation comes risk and you’ve got to have the appetite for that risk and be supported in it.

Wendy Rayner: I think the other component of it is that big business and creativity don’t naturally sit well together. Part of the journey for me has been in embracing the fact that creativity and business are, in fact, the perfect combination, if it’s done well.

Idealog: So what do businesses do wrong? Is there an excessive importance put on immediate ROI?

Wendy Rayner: Marketing is only just becoming credible at the top table as we tend to be more creative in our problem solving verses a constrained, return-on-investment, fact-driven approach. Creativity is a little bit of gut, a little bit of intuition - the intangibles.

The thing about innovation is that it doesn’t have to be big. I mean, what if one of our factory workers finds a better way of doing something? To me, if it’s different and its better, its innovation. I think we’ve probably created this large concept of what innovation actually is. Perhaps if we broke it down into safer bite-sized chunks, we’d do more of it.

Idealog: So for businesses looking to make innovation a part of their ongoing business processes, what are some of the roadblocks that have to be removed?

Brendon Fry: Creativity breeds creativity. If you’re in a situation where creativity gets chopped off at the very first suggestion of an idea because it’s too far ‘out there’, or no-one ‘gets it’, or ‘no-one would ever do that’, you’re not going get people creatively problem solving. It’s the mind-set to say ‘let’s think about that idea, lets step it forward’, as opposed to going, ‘that’s stupid’. That's when creativity really starts to happen.

You start off on the very edge of the curve, with your crazy idea, and if someone says 'yes, we’ll have a look at it', well yes, it might still be too edgy, but the essence of it might suggest something you should be doing differently in your business. It might get toned down or shaped into something that might be a huge step forward. If you want to sap creativity out of a company, you do it with lots and lots of nos, we cant’s,too hards and never works. And for what? The cost of letting an idea float for a few minutes, hours or days is minimal.

Wendy Rayner: Good ideas can come from anywhere, so you need to provide avenues for people to input their ideas, whether that’s a mailbox on your intranet or Pass The Idea or an open invitation to come and have a chat, whichever, as long as you provide those avenues.

Then, actually be open to the new ideas, try them and also circle back to give the right response and recognition. So not only are you listening but you’re also responding.

Finally, keep the view that failure can actually be a success. In our business we tried something with an organic juice range late last year, and it didn’t work, but we absolutely celebrated it because we actually tried it, and that was quite a steep change for us. That hasn’t been the way the culture was before. We congratulated the whole project team and said ‘you made this happen, this was a different thing for our business to do, so tell us three things that you learnt, and what are we going to do with them?’ And so we took lessons from that ‘failure’ that have now helped us make some successful changes. So from failure can come this real feeling of success. So try something, and even if it fails, take a win from it.