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Opening minds to open innovation – using psychology to drive radical change in manufacturing


By Dr Uwe Klein, PA business transformation expert.

Innovation within the manufacturing industry is changing radically and one of the clearest signs of this transformation is the growing number of companies adopting open innovation. In open innovation, businesses forego their traditional ‘closed’ approach – through which they use in-house R&D to create new products and services – to collaborate instead with customers, industry partners and other external sources.

Participants in our recent survey, ‘Innovation for peak performance’, said they expected internally-generated innovation to decrease by about a quarter during the next 10 years, with collaboration networks increasing by 50% in the same timeframe.

While manufacturers may be open in principle to the new thinking and fresh perspectives that external sources provide, many struggle to make the necessary change to their businesses. A significant barrier is the attitudes of employees, many of whom think of innovation as an internal and ‘closed’ process. Instinctively, they may feel uncomfortable using ideas and knowledge that they know to have been generated externally.

The ‘theory of planned behaviour’ helps you understand, and therefore challenge, the deep-seated convictions that underpin employees’ resistance to open innovation. The theory – an established concept in psychology – gives transformation teams a framework to discuss the benefits of change by categorising people’s beliefs as ‘behavioural’, ‘normative’ or ‘control’.      

Challenging behaviour

Behavioural beliefs are ingrained notions about the consequences of a particular behaviour in a particular situation and evolve through personal learning over time. By their nature, these beliefs tend to be resistant to quick and easy change.

In the context of open innovation, employees’ behavioural beliefs might cause them to believe that opening up to multiple sources of innovation would ultimately cause harm to the business. Seeing their company as their ‘in group’, they have learnt to be wary of information from external ‘out groups’.

If these beliefs are ignored, there is likely to be resistance to change. Senior managers therefore need to take time to understand what shaped the behaviour in the first place and identify what needs to be worked out during the transformation process. At the same time, they need to actively promote new perspectives about innovation such as ‘proudly found elsewhere’.

Questioning ‘the done thing’

Normative beliefs describe what is, and what is not, socially acceptable within a peer group. These beliefs arise when people start using their colleagues’ behaviour as guiding principles.

When implementing open innovation, the transformation team needs to question the norms and mores of the work environment. Openly challenging a ‘not invented here’ (NIH) culture – in which the peer group believes its work to be inherently better than that of outsiders – is crucial in helping employees start to think differently.

The team must also encourage an interest in the perspectives of ‘out-groups’, building and nurturing networks and recognising the value of collaborating with external partners. They need to involve and integrate employees, customers, suppliers, and other network partners in dialogue and the decision-making process.

Maintaining control

Control beliefs are based on the idea that people only change if they believe that they are in control of what is happening. People are, for example, more likely to exercise if they think they are in control of the intensity of the training programme.

In this context, open innovation can be problematic because it reduces the perceived control of R&D employees in innovation. Employees in R&D departments are, for example, generally less prone to discuss innovation activities with external parties unless it is within a safe and well defined context. Moreover, some R&D employees fear becoming redundant if the company opened up to external sources of innovation.

To reduce uncertainty and increase perceived control, the transformation team needs to work with the external innovation partners to build mutual trust and establish personal relationships with employees. They need to show how their stakeholders can still be in control even though the company has started using open innovation.

By addressing these three kinds of belief, the transformation team will have a better understanding of the psychological concepts underpinning reasoned action and behavioural change. As a first step, through interviews and workshops, they should make sure they know and understand the variety and quality of beliefs of all the employees that will be affected.

Contact the consumer and manufacturing team

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