Every Problem Can Be Solved

Interview with Olga Patel
By Paul Arnold
Olga Patel is a dynamic business leader who’s held prominent positions in several multinationals, helping to drive their business growth through innovation.

She was formerly the Senior Manager of Open Innovation at Mattel where she spearheaded the building of new open innovation practices and approaches. Her experience with open innovation extends further back than that to when she was a research scientist at Procter & Gamble. There she was involved in understanding how new technologies could be used to create newer and better products.

In this interview with IdeaConnection, Olga talks about her experiences with open innovation, its challenges and opportunities.

Olga PatelWhat benefits have Mattel reaped by using open innovation?

Well it was just that, solving the internal challenges with external help and the challenges were of a different variety. For instance, we had technical challenges where we couldn’t solve certain mechanical problems in house and we went outside to look for connections and found them in a couple of different industries.

On the other hand, we’ve tapped into our loyal consumers’ community for the Fisher Price brand to help us come up with new characters in Fisher Price lines. If you think about it, when you have a loyal consumer community who are your lead users they are providing the information and the ideas that are relevant to them. So you already have a higher chance of a new product and new offerings being successful in the marketplace.

Do you have a toolkit of open innovation methodologies that you use?
And if so how do you decide which ones to use?

Well this is a great question, because the challenge of any open innovation function within an organization is that it’s so very new. Everything is new. It has been around for less than 10 years for the most part and you have to figure out new approaches pretty much every time you have a project in place. It’s trial and error and sometimes things don’t work out. So I made sure that I involved myself in peer open innovation communities and advisory councils to help guide me through all the different tools and processes. Because you know, it’s easier to learn from someone else’s mistakes than make your own.

Another challenge is that, because of the development in information technology and ability now to access increasingly more and more resources, it’s rapidly changing. So even if there is a process in place that works, the chances are that a year from now or even six months from now there could be an opportunity to optimize it.

The other important thing is to tap into the right community. And this is something that I learned early in my open innovation days. If you just take the concept of open innovation and ask the world to help you solve the problem, yes it may work, but if you zero on the right community, on the right crowd your chances are much higher.

So for instance, if you need to solve a technical challenge you are probably better off going to technical communities through certain technical open innovation brokers rather than going to your consumers. And the other way around if you want a new idea for content or a character. You are probably better off going to your consumers or a crowd that’s good at content creation rather than a technical community.

Are there any open innovation services you wish existed?

Yes. And I have thought about it often, especially in the last few years when there have been so many new suppliers surfacing up providing one or another kind of open innovation service. I ended up actually compiling a list of them for my own records and to be helpful to the company. I rated them on what their core strengths were and what they were good for and what they were not good for. But I gave up on that list because there were too many of them. And the existing ones were changing their services or going out of business. So I wished often that there was a service that provided you with an overview of current open innovation suppliers and what they were.

So you can easily find the right one for your needs?

Right. For instance, there is the Green Book for market research suppliers. And they do their assessment I think once a year and then they publish a report that includes the key suppliers. They also interview clients and record some kind of client experience in addition to the list of suppliers. And I find this very helpful, but nothing like this exists for open innovation suppliers as far as I know.

Big data is something we are hearing more and more about, have you come across it in your work?

Certainly the notion of big data is becoming more and more prevalent. And it provides a really good opportunity to learn behavioral data about our consumers, because sometimes they don’t know what they want. But by analyzing what their behaviors are we can come up with new opportunities.
I know that consumer insight suppliers are building big data analytic capabilities. For instance, going through consumer reviews on sites like Amazon.com and figuring out what the key comments clusters are. And they’re using human assisted machine learning algorithms for this. As we move forward and machine learning becomes more and more sophisticated it’s going to provide even greater opportunities for us as consumer product manufacturers to come up with new opportunities. The challenge though is knowing what question you have and looking at the right slices of big data, because big data is BIG. So you can analyze it endlessly. But I think the challenge is to frame your question and have the right data set to address that question.

I was at the TMRE conference last month and I heard the talk by a LinkedIn team. And they have tons of big data about LinkedIn users. So their challenge was not only to analyze the right slice of data. Their charge was how to store data so later on they can come in and find the right slice to analyze. So they were talking about different elaborate ways that they were implementing to store data.

And finally, what is it that fascinates you or excites you about open innovation?

The concept of open innovation is supplementing your internal capabilities with external resources and there is this overused quotation that 99.9% of smart people don’t work for your organization. It’s very true and so it would be a shame not to be able to tap into their knowledge base to solve your internal challenges. And that’s what fascinates me, because I believe every problem can be solved. More often than not you don’t have enough resources in house to solve all the problems that you have.

Information technologies are providing us with more and more tools to be able to access experts and resources throughout the entire world. And that was impossible even ten years ago. And I find this really fascinating and I think the future is extremely exciting for open innovation as the growth in information technology moves exponentially.

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