How to Eat An Elephant: Open Innovation Bite-by-Bite

By MBO Partners | December 16, 2022

open innovation

Key Points

Task remnants pile up and show the need to add open innovation to an organization’s workforce strategy. 

A secret-sauce combination of curiosity, fearlessness and initiative is crucial in finding the perfect problem solver.

Open innovation provides companies with a controlled pocket of risk that benefits the entire company by showing the rest of the organization what’s possible.

Open innovation can help companies solve problems that would otherwise remain left behind by any department. Whether implemented at a large or small company, crowdsourcing can help thrust productivity forward. It is important to use problem-solvers who are naturally curious, confident lifelong learners. After selecting problem solvers, a company can learn from the solutions provided. These results can be iterated and tried again if needed. This scientific approach to corporate problems can be broken down into tasks and rebuilt into a comprehensive strategy.  

How to Eat an Elephant 

An African proverb affirms,” The best way to eat an elephant in your path is to cut him up into little pieces.” Giant elephants are best tackled by eating them bite-by-bite. Efficient companies embrace this concept: they solve large assignments by breaking them into several small tasks. By breaking up large problems, companies can clearly see what tiny gaps rise to the surface.   

First Bite: Identifying the Problem 

The leftover work is seen clearly after each task is delegated. New tasks bubble up as this accounting occurs. Most problems fit neatly into traditional departmental silos: human resources, marketing, editorial or management. However, some problems arise that don’t fit into a department. These task remnants pile up and show the need to add open innovation to an organization’s workforce strategy.  

Here are some examples of problems open innovation could solve:  

Diverse-Status Workforce 

Even the most impressive companies need to improve their diverse-status workforce strategy. Full-time employees, contingent workers and interns must be supplemented by problem solvers to take corporations into the future of work. The work of today can’t by solved using workers whose roles were defined by yesterday’s problems. The future of work is made up of these situations that seem few and far between on a micro level. When looked at on a macro level, these problems reveal a gaping hole in the workforce.        

Departmental Gaps 

Wonks are too close to departmental problems. These experts need to be sent into the sky to look down upon a workforce that is shifting and changing into the future of work. Traditionally intelligent people can be the most vulnerable to ignoring constructive criticism. Employees who are used to solving a conveyor belt filled with the same problems refuse to see the simplest solutions. New injections of novel solutions can add to an otherwise stale and stagnant workforce. These departmental gaps will prepare you to ask the right questions. This is where the problem solver needs to step in to answer with future innovation. 

Second Bite: Select the Perfect Problem Solver 

Trust-worthy problem solvers are easily identifiable if you know what to look for. A secret-sauce combination of curiosity, fearlessness and initiative is crucial in finding the perfect problem solver. Open innovation can provide a clear runway to success when applied thoughtfully and judiciously.    

Here are some examples of ideal problem solver personas:  


Natural curiosity is an important quality when selecting problem solvers. These people look beyond the status quo. Successful companies experiment with different iterations of solutions to find the right fit for their problems. Tinkerers enjoy the entire journey of finding those solutions: they are delighted by the prospect of changing and evolving to land on possible solutions. Working through these journeys build confidence.  


Making perceived mistakes and moving on requires confidence. Advanced problem solvers can boldly approach anything prepared to fail. Failure is an integral part of the scientific method. An ideal problem solver fails and learns from their experience. They move on to course-correct in an evolving workforce. True confidence in rooted in patience. Problem solvers recognize the scope of work and are prepared for that scope to widen at any step of process. This necessary evolution occurs seamlessly when you employ a lifelong learner.   

Lifelong Learning 

Open innovation is a concept that supports the practice of lifelong learning. The confident and courageous problem solvers are the most successful because they know that company experiments need to be handled task-by-task and void of any semblance of fear. Losing is not an option. It is simply another step on the journey toward a workable solution. An excellent problem solver looks for better ways to do what has already been. They are dedicated to the process and aren’t afraid of saying, “We can do better.”    

Third Bite: Iterate and Try Again 

This bite might be the hardest for your company to swallow. Companies watched as more nimble tech companies moved fast and broke things. They sat on the sidelines and let them take the risks. This seems like it could be a winning strategy: competitors are tinkering with their strategies and let your company watch what they land on. Companies that wait for their competitors to move first find themselves falling behind. Those lessons learned by others don’t have the same impact as lessons learning inside company walls. The best way to learn these corporate strategy lessons is to test internally with the least risk level possible. Open innovation provides companies with a controlled pocket of risk that benefits the entire company by showing the rest of the organization what’s possible. Stagnation is the riskiest choice a company can make. Embracing change is the only way a company can move on to greater solutions.   

Biting Into The Future  

Long-term corporate success can be found by applying old principles to new problems. Approach this workforce friction bite-by-bite: identify the problem, ask the right questions and have the courage to iterate and move on. Solutions that worked in the past cannot fix the problems of tomorrow. Open innovators aren’t afraid of applying old principles to their problems of the future. When your company reaches the threatening precipice to its next seemingly overwhelming problem, commit to the practice of open innovation, bite-by-bite.  

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