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Open Innovation: A Not-So-Secret Recipe

General Mills uses open innovation to share its research and development projects with suppliers and others who may be able to help make the final product a larger success.

General MillsProduct development projects are often kept quiet by processors looking to protect their “secret recipes.” However, some companies, such as General Mills, are using open innovation to share its research and development (R&D) projects with suppliers and others who may be able to help make the final product a larger success. Food Manufacturing spoke with Michael Antinone of the General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN) about the benefits of putting development projects out in the open.

Q: What is the X3 process, and how does it work?

A: The X3 Process is a new approach that we developed at General Mills to provide a step-by-step roadmap for our open innovation projects. It encompasses three core principals of innovation — eXamine, eXpand, and eXplore — and facilitates the process of innovation by helping make connections between unmet technical needs and actionable solutions.

Unlike some other innovation processes, the X3 Process provides a non-linear path to success, which means you use only the steps you need to effectively identify appropriate solutions. This is important to us because we realize that people approach innovation from various camps. For example, there are those who excel at defining needs or problems, but struggle to identify solutions. On the other hand, some people are great at generating solution paths but are less comfortable with problem definition. It is critical that the X3 Process accommodate various approaches, so that anyone can use it to achieve success.

This non-linear approach is also important because not all projects are the same, and therefore, not every project will require every step of the process. Instead, the X3 Process allows you to right-size the solution for the task at hand, only doing what is necessary to get to the best solution spaces.

The X3 Process includes the following steps:

  1. Ask the right question(s). Gather knowledge internally to gain alignment on your “true” knowledge gaps and technical needs.
  2. Get smart. Build and develop new knowledge, including key insights and innovation opportunities.
  3. Ask better questions. Immerse your team in new knowledge to generate insights and new hypotheses.
  4. Communicate needs. Write, refine and finalize well-crafted briefs that clearly explain your needs.
  5. Find smart people. Use available tools and networking opportunities to identify potential solution providers.
  6. Make connections. Initiate relationships and kick off projects.

Q: How was this process developed?

A: Since formally launching G-WIN five years ago, we learned that our scientists were excited about the open innovation tools available to them, but they didn’t necessarily know how and when to use them most effectively. There was a need for a facilitator or roadmap for the entire open innovation process — something that would let our scientists be scientists.

Beginning in March of last year, the G-WIN team worked with a group of General Mills’ strategists and innovators to develop the approach, bringing together a number of best practices to balance the art and science of open innovation.

Q: How have General Mills’ innovation projects been impacted by this new process?

A: The X3 Process has been instrumental in our recent innovation projects, which is why we decided to share our insights externally in hopes that other businesses, organizations and individuals will find the approach valuable to their projects as well.

We first implemented the X3 Process at General Mills to guide a sugar-reduction project that kicked off in June 2011, and we intend to use the process for similar large platform projects in the future.

Q: How has open innovation worked for General Mills? Have there been any unforeseen benefits or consequences?

A: Innovation is an important growth strategy for General Mills. We’re always looking for ways to bring even higher levels of taste, health and convenience to consumers. We can use open innovation as a lever to deliver these benefits to the consumer through introducing new products, improving our existing products and packaging or finding new ways to manufacture or market our products.

One recent example of how open innovation has driven performance is our new Fiber One 90-Calorie Brownies. General Mills’ Snacks division, which includes brands such as Nature Valley, Fiber One and Chex Mix, has embraced open innovation to advance several areas of its business, including new product innovation. While the Fiber One team created the idea and concept for a tasty, wholesome brownie, and our R&D department had the expertise to make the perfect dough, they recognized they didn’t have the existing internal expertise and baking manufacturing capabilities to bake it. In order to quickly bring the product to market, we decided to enlist an open innovation partner, which we found in a company with which General Mills had worked years earlier. That partner had the baking experience and pilot plant facilities needed to test and perfect the baking process to the Fiber One team’s exact specifications.

The Snacks division estimates that the partnership saved nine to 12 months in terms of taking the product from concept to launch, and Fiber One 90-Calorie Brownies have already proven a terrific success, on track to reach $120 million in year-one retail sales.

One unforeseen benefit of open innovation that our experiences have shown us is the huge opportunity we have to better connect with suppliers with which we are already working. Prior to launching G-WIN, we used to be close to the vest about our future plans and projects, even with suppliers. We now see the value existing suppliers can have at the front end of innovation, as seen with the Fiber One 90-Calorie Brownies project.

Q: Is open innovation a fluid process? Have there been any changes with the process as it has moved forward? Do you anticipate further changes?

A: Since launching our program, we’ve continuously refined and evolved our practices to become more effective and efficient in bringing the right outside technologies, processes and products to General Mills, which has accelerated the pace of our innovation and saved money, time and risk.

A few of the notable evolutions of our program include the following:

  1. In 2008, we expanded the G-WIN team to include more than a dozen Innovation Entrepreneurs who work with each of General Mills’ businesses to identify and prioritize the solutions and capabilities that are the most important to each business.
  2. We realized that we needed to be more specific and transparent about the challenges we were looking to solve in order to get higher-quality submissions. For example, it’s one thing to say that we’re seeking “packaging solutions” as we may have done early on in our efforts, and another to say that we’re looking for ways “to use renewable content in flexible packaging films and rigid containers.” In the fall of 2009, we launched the G-WIN innovation portal, through which we publish technical challenges and invite visitors to create and submit non-confidential proposals. During the first year of launching this more robust and clearly articulated site, we connected with more than 1,000 inventors from around the world and received more than 500 proposals.
  3. In 2010, we introduced a town hall meeting strategy to help efficiently make meaningful connections with potential partners around the globe. We hold these town hall events at times and locations that coincide with food industry or technology events to ensure we’re able to meet, greet and learn more about a large number of potential partners that are relevant to our business. Attendees are encouraged to familiarize themselves with our current technical challenges by visiting our online portal prior to the town hall event. The meeting itself provides the opportunity for them to get to know us, network with each other, and share their core competencies and capabilities with us. After the town hall meeting, we then follow up individually with the attendees who were a best fit in terms of their abilities to solve our challenges.
  4. Last but not least, we’ve held two Supplier Summits to bring together our top suppliers to network, hear about the company’s business strategies and learn about specific partnership opportunities. In response to the Supplier Summit we held last summer, we’ve already received more than 120 proposals, more than 100 of which are continuing forward for further evaluation.

Interview by Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor, Food Manufacturing