May 16, 2011 • By

I was an open innovation skeptic

A little more than six years ago, General Mills changed its approach to innovation. We told our scientists that they no longer needed to be the ones coming up with the eureka moments and great technical breakthroughs. Instead, they needed to be looking outside our walls to connecting with great innovators around the world and leveraging their eureka moments.

Through open innovation and our General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN), we have connected with some of the world’s smartest inventors to generate a wide spectrum of collaboration opportunities. Everything from applying existing technologies more effectively, to partnering more closely with key suppliers, to finding potential new partners in entirely different industries.

I have seen firsthand the power and benefit of open innovation. However, I wasn’t always a believer in open innovation. I was a skeptic.

In 2005, General Mills’ senior vice president of Innovation, Technology and Quality, Peter Erickson, came to me and asked me to take a job leading an open innovation effort. He sensed a benefit in having General Mills more effectively connected with outside partners.

I turned him down.

As I contemplated the offer of an external innovation job, the image that came to mind was that of a person who spent their days reading patents in a lonely and forgotten office.

Nope — definitely not a job for me.

At that point, I had more than 20 years of food industry experience, having worked for great companies, leaders in their field such as Campbell’s, Mars, Conagra and General Mills. I knew how R&D was done — it was done with the best employees you could hire. Employees who focused on every aspect of the new product development process and who, hopefully, created a patent that you could lock away and use to prevent others from duplicating your efforts.

Peter came back to my office a month later and began to tell me about how P&G was having success with open innovation. This second visit from Peter alone was enough to make me reconsider, but as I learned more about open innovation and all of its potential, the more willing I became to take the leap.

In the six years that have now passed, I’ve learned that open innovation is not an abstract academic concept. In fact, at its core, it’s common sense. It’s about finding smart people inside and outside the company who can positively impact your business. It’s tremendously exciting as you discover new technologies and partners that can drive your business forward. And it’s equally challenging as you push against a culture that was built doing things internally.

I’ve seen firsthand the possibilities open innovation can create and I now proudly reside in the “believer” camp. As a believer, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to meet any one of you across the Open Innovation table.

I’ve also witnessed how a connected approach to innovation can drive better and more internal collaboration, which when you’re working for a company with a broad portfolio of brands in more than a dozen categories, can be extremely powerful.

Since the launch of G-WIN, more than 40 new General Mills products have incorporated a significant portion of open innovation, including Fiber One bars, Pillsbury Savorings, Progresso Light soups, Yoplait Smoothie, and Wanchai Ferry frozen dinner kits. We expect this number to grow in the years ahead.

What has been your experience with open innovation?

Editor’s note: You can visit GeneralMills.com/WIN to view current partnership opportunities with General Mills’ iconic brands.