Building Expertise Through Collective Innovation

The Raymond open-innovation conference gathered design managers from companies such as Heineken and Lego to share best practices and improve the bottom line

Open innovation has been a hot management phrase for the past five years. So far, though, these collaborations have generally been focused on small-scale research and development, or technology ventures between giant global brands and smaller partners. Think Proctor & Gamble's (PG) collaborations with universities and suppliers or IBM's (IBM) embrace of an open-source software language which both saves the company money and provides it with a new revenue stream.

But what if you brought together design heads from some of the world's biggest global brands with the aim of stimulating innovation? That was the premise of the fifth annual Raymond conference on Feb. 28 and 29 in Rotterdam attended by 17 design managers from companies as diverse as Heineken, Philips, Lego, Airbus, and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). Designers are accustomed to working with external consultants and customers, but Raymond's aim is different: fostering cooperation between design teams at big global companies in radically different markets.

The conference is the brainchild of two Dutch design companies: Park Advanced Design Management and Eden, an interactive-experience design firm. Tired of attending crowded conferences dominated by endless speeches, they decided to start an invitation-only event five years ago where designers from non-competing companies could freely share ideas with the aim of finding new ways to get more and better products out faster.

An Imaginary Global Firm

"Everyone talks about open innovation but the design department is the place within a company most open to doing it," says Raymond co-founder and Park director Tim Selders. That's because designers, especially those involved in corporate branding and product or service design, are accustomed to working with external partners and customers. "It's about finding new ways for companies to share design processes, resources, and tools," continues Selders.

This year's Raymond conference followed an unusual format that led to some surprising insights and even a few potential commercial collaborations. Holed up together in a room for nearly two days, the attendees, including design world luminaries Clive Grinyer, director of product design at Orange France Telecom who founded design consultancy Tangerine with Apple's (AAPL) Jonathan Ive in 1989; and Philippe Picaud, head of design at French sports retailer Decathlon, were asked to imagine they were part of a new global design company called, with a team of some 1,200 designers.

Their mission, they were informed in a video presentation by the unseen "Raymond" (think Charlie from Charlie's Angels) was to deliver the best, fastest, and most inexpensive design solutions for a broad range of businesses across a variety of industries: medical, retail, toys, sports equipment, and clothing.

The Spirit of a Collective Company

To do this, they had to figure out how to motivate staff to keep innovation fresh, which design tools and processes to use, how to benchmark their performance, and how to share knowledge of trends, materials, and technologies among designers.

"Although we're all from different backgrounds and industries, we all face similar problems and we all have different ways of solving them," says Loe Limpens, a design manager for Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn.

The process worked by asking six designers at a time to sit around a fictitious boardroom table to bat around ideas on how the new company would operate. Each board member was asked to contribute to the discussion on the three broad themes. While the participants brought their own experience to the exercise, the idea was to shed their own backgrounds in the spirit of creating a new company that would benefit from their collective expertise.

The experience got designers to break free from their own corporate silos and look at their businesses from another industry's perspective. So Orange's Grinyer was able to get designers from fashion retailer Mexx to see the mobile phone as more than just a fashion accessory. Instead of thinking in terms of a designer-branded phone, he says, a mobile phone company such as Orange could provide a fashion brand with access to a customer blog on street fashion, for instance, enabling both companies to get more detailed consumer insight from a target customer group. "These kinds of ideas may not pan out but it's a great test-bed for innovation," Grinyer says.

Short-Term Design Exchanges

On the second day of Raymond, designers created a marketplace, taking turns manning their own stalls, where they listed what they were willing to give another designer and what they would like to receive. Decathlon's Picaud invited designers from other companies such as Lego and high-end stroller manufacturer Bugaboo to visit his team (comprising 120 designers) in Lille to get a closer look at the company's internal design processes—including sharing some of the key metrics and processes he uses internally to measure design effectiveness. "These tools show design's added value to management but they also act as an education tool for designers to better understand a company's values and what measurements drive management," Picaud says.

Over the last seven years, Picaud has used design to help transform Decathlon from a retailer that sold other sporting brands such as Nike (NKE) and Adidas to a company where 60% of sales now come from Decathlon's 15 private label brands. He'd like to send some of his designers to other companies on short-term exchanges. These, he says, "are a way for my team to get new ideas and develop new ways of dealing with various design problems."

Design-led companies such as Decathlon and Lego boast an impressive track record of innovation. But even they believe opening up their studios to other companies has real potential benefits. Lego's design director Torsten Bjorn plans to visit some of the design departments of companies that were at Raymond with the aim of seeing how they integrate different design functions. "We all have different cultures and processes and sharing our experience can inspire you to think and work in a different way," he says.

Stretching the Mind of Design

It's a point of view shared by most of the participants. Orange's Grinyer offered to share online branding tools with designers from other industries. "When Orange and France Telecom's broadband provider Wanadoo came together we learned how to control 20 different Web sites within 20 different countries," he says. In exchange, Grinyer "bought" knowledge of Picaud's design metrics system. "This way I can go back and show management just how valuable my Web site tools are," he jokes.

For others, such as Trevor Withell, director of innovation for Bugaboo, the main benefit of this open innovation exchange was discovering new ways to motivate his design team. "For designers, motivation isn't all about money," he says. He thinks the best way to keep designers motivated and innovation flowing is to open them up to new ideas and experiences. So he plans to send one of his head designers to a totally different type of company such as a heavy engineering firm to "really stretch the mind."

While Raymond reinforced the almost unlimited potential of open innovation in design, participants conceded the concept is not without challenges. As James Woudhuysen, professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester, England—who acted as an adviser at the event—points out, such ventures take time, money, and management commitment to develop and can lead to disputes about intellectual property. Still, Raymond showed open innovation is possible. "Getting 17 of the world's top corporate design directors in one room around a program of collaboration rather than egoism is already an achievement," says Woudhuysen. "To get, within two days, six agreements for pairs of design directors to embark on common projects is an even bigger success."

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