End-Starting Innovation: How Organizations Accelerated Their Open Innovation Process in COVID-19

Published on October 14, 2020


The COVID crisis created new temporary conditions and constraints that forced organizations to find ways to accelerate the innovation process into weeks or months. Yet, the literature states that across different organizations and industries innovation processes take significant periods of time, months or years (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1995; Garud, Gehman, & Kumaraswamy, 2011). Van de Ven and co-authors (1999) refer to the innovation “journey.” Innovation processes are knowledge intensive and require a collective process of building knowledge (Hargadon & Bechky, 2006). A typical process includes exploring and combining ideas from different individuals and fields, evaluating these ideas, selecting and executing upon the selected solutions (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1995; Yoo, Boland, Lyytinen, & Majchrzak, 2012, Björk, Boccardelli, & Magnusson, 2010). Moreover, these processes take time since they involve high levels of technological uncertainty, leading to tensions and debates when making decisions on the development process (Benner & Tushman, 2003; Seidel & O’Mahony, 2014; Smith & Tushman, 2005). This raises an unexplored question: How can organizations accelerate the process to respond to a crisis?

The literature has documented how innovation processes usually follow clear processes with accepted phases and milestones (Ancona, Okhuysen, & Perlow, 2001; Brown & Eisenhardt, 1995; Clark & Fujimoto, 1991). Across various types of new product development processes, there is usually a similar underlying temporal structure for the work process that was documented in the literature, comprising several phases. The three phases, ideation, execution and commercialization comprise the phase review framework, often used in product development (Kagan, Leider, & Lovejoy, 2018). In our study we refer to the start of the innovation process as ideation and to the end as execution up to the point where the product is scalable. We grouped, for conceptual simplicity, the innovation phases into two groups, using the terms for our interviewees: “prototyping” and “productyping”. Of course the innovation process is not a linear one (Van deVen, 2017) and these phases are not sequential yet there are two types of processes that are usually distinct.

There is usually a clear separation between the ideation and execution phases. There is no smooth transition between these phases (Van deVen, 1999; Markham et al., 2010); the transition between the ideation phases and the execution phases is very challenging, some researchers have even named it the “valley of death” (Van de Ven and Poole 1995, Markham 2002). These phases are distinct and are associated with distinct expertise that are often considered contradictory. The first phases of the innovation process are about creativity, experimentation and risk taking, while the execution phases are focused on manufacturing, scalability, productivity, economics and often regulation (Fleming, Lee & Chen, 2016; Van de Ven, 1986). The failure to transition from ideation to execution becomes especially challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic because organizations look to accelerate the process, while still guaranteeing the execution of the new ideas. Moving faster is simply not the answer because time is short. Transitioning from the ideation to the execution phases too early can have negative results on development due to insufficient exploration, reduced novelty and poorer design choices. Conversely, late transition can derive better designs, but with the tradeoff of increased cost and time (Verganti, 1999; Biazzo, 2009). The failure to implement and execute upon new ideas and solutions has been well documented in traditional innovation processes, as well as open innovation processes (Lifshitz-Assaf, 2018). Therefore, it is challenging for organizations to drive execution and accelerate the new product development process without damaging quality. Organizations cannot simply compress the existing innovation phases accelerate them (Lifshitz-Assaf, Lebovitz and Zalmanson 2020).

There has been a surge of open innovation activities to fight COVID-19, in the form of open competitions, open collaborative hackathons and citizen science initiatives attempting to address the web of health and social problems generated by the crisis. Efforts range from the collection and analysis of data from populations affected by the pandemic, to the design and production of medical equipment, especially ventilators and personal protective equipment, with the intent for rapid, affordable and wide distribution. Open innovation processes are usually faster and more cost efficient; therefore fitting the needs of innovation fast (Horwitz, 2009; Chesbrough, 2020; Paik et al., 2020). In this paper we focus on whether and how organizations used open innovation to respond to COVID-19 challenges differently from the regular open innovation process.


Hila Lifshitz-Assaf

Hila Lifshitz-Assaf joined New York University Stern School of Business as an Assistant Professor of Information, Operations and Management Sciences in July 2013. She is also a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

Professor Lifshitz-Assaf’s research focuses on developing an in-depth empirical and theoretical understanding of the micro-foundations of scientific and technological innovation and knowledge creation processes in the digital age. She explores how the ability to innovate is being transformed, as well as the challenges and opportunities the transformation means for R&D organizations, professionals and their work. She conducted an in-depth 3-year longitudinal field study of NASA’s experimentation with open innovation online platforms and communities, resulting in a scientific breakthrough. Her dissertation received the best dissertation Grigor McClelland Award at the European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS) 2015.

Steven Randazzo

Steven is currently serving as an Assistant Director of Research Management at the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard. Previously, he was the Director of Growth and Research at Viva + Impulse Creative Co., a digital advertising agency, where he was responsible for the growth and direction of the agency. Prior to his work with Viva +Impulse, Steven served as the Communications Director and Cofounder of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services IDEA Lab where he worked with startups and internal government teams to change the way government and health care solved some of the nation’s biggest problems.

Prior to the IDEA Lab, Steven worked at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as a Senior Advisor to the Administrator after serving in Governor Bill Richardson’s Administration as the Legislative Liaison for the New Mexico Human Services Department.

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