Soft Skills for Open Innovation Success

Soft Skills for Open Innovation Success

Soft Skills for Open Innovation Success

Gail Martino and John Bartolone

Originally published: 2012 (PDMA Visions Magazine • Issue 2, 2012 • Vol 36 • No 2
Read time: 10 minutes

The open innovation (OI) professional is a rare breed—part entrepreneur, deal maker, alliance manager and project manager. Success in this role requires a true balance of talent and skills to drive growth from new sources and business models. Practitioners must both be technically proficient and demonstrate a high degree of business and social acumen—skills that are sometimes found in different places within an organization. We do not deny that some of the skills we describe here overlap (they probably do). But like a diamond, each has various facets that work together to create a brilliant whole.

OI Soft vs. Hard Skills

Some skills are easier than others to teach someone interested in becoming an OI practitioner. Ironically, these are typically referred to as the “hard skills.” Hard OI skills are specific to the OI professionals’ tasks and/or activities. These include, for example, developing a project brief, scouting for technology, evaluating technology, performing diligence, developing and negotiating deal structures and overall project management. Given that they are easier to teach, they tend also to be easier to measure, strengthen and reward.

OI soft skills, by contrast, are more broadly applied across OI tasks and activities. They are a combination of personal traits, habits, attitudes and interpersonal abilities that can enhance or detract from an individual’s ability to build and manage OI relationships, develop win-win deals and deliver project goals. To the extent that these soft skills are a product of individual traits and habits, they are difficult to teach, although some may be strengthened through experience, mentoring or by balancing the overall skill set across an organization.

Why It Matters

One of the biggest mistakes a manager can make is to downplay the importance of soft skills in the ultimate success of the OI organization. This is because the OI job is ultimately about people, relationships and trust. We have seen high-potential projects fail and lower-potential projects succeed in part because these three elements were (or were not) in place.

With the right soft skills in place, partners feel energized and connected even through the difficult moments of negotiation. Both sides work hard to build the opportunity, and they look forward to working together in the future. Without them, each side feels depleted, exhausted or worse—headed for litigation.

We believe that soft skills are so important that they need to be part of an individual’s ongoing OI performance evaluation; specifically, evaluating individuals not just on what they get done but also how they get it done. If individuals were to appear productive but leave a trail of burnt bridges in their wake, their performance should suffer as it would if they were not productive. How will you attract and partner with people with the best ideas if they don’t want to work with you?

Intrapreneurial Orientation

We believe that one of the most valuable traits that underlie success in OI is the tendency to be intrapreneurial. The term “intrapreneur” was coined by Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot in 1978 to describe employees of large corporations hired to think and act as entrepreneurs. An intrapreneur is someone who focuses on innovation and can transform an opportunity (concept, technology, strategic partnership) into a profitable venture within an organizational environment. Intrapreneurs offer an organization a new way of thinking, making companies more productive and profitable in the process.

By definition, intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs embody similar characteristics. These characteristics might include being proactive or demonstrating conviction and drive, for example. More critically, there is a visionary quality about them—they see opportunities and drive them forward with and within an organization, sometimes before the organization realizes it needs them.

There are, however, differences between intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs. One such difference may be how they define personal success. For the entrepreneur, taking the op-portunity to the marketplace or to a buyer may be the ultimate reward. For the intrapreneur, however, success may involve moving an opportunity from an initial organizational “push” to an organizational “pull.”

Indeed, for the OI professional to be truly successful, he or she needs the organization to adopt his or her idea so it can take it though to its logical conclusion—a marketplace event, for example. Organizational adoption requires the OI practitioner to relinquish control over the project. Al-though that may not always be easy for the entrepreneurial-minded, it is critical to allow the dream to become a reality within a corporate environment.

The six remaining skills described below are likely part or parcel of an intrapreneurial orientation. Yet they are important in their own right, as it is difficult if not impossible to bring an opportunity to life without them.

Strategic Influencing

To successfully take an idea forward within an organization and to be an effective alliance manager, intrapreneurial conviction and drive is not enough. It requires a high degree of organizational awareness and political savvy—aspects of strategic influencing. Strategic influencing, according to strategist Dell Larcen, is the “act of employing carefully planned approaches to persuade or convince others. Strategic influencing is about being able to move things forward…without pushing, forcing or telling others what to do.”

Strategic influencing begins with an understanding of what each party wants from the partnership or, if these needs are incompatible, quickly realizing it and parting amicably. Along the way, the OI practitioner must “speak multiple languages,” often coordinating efforts across organizational boundaries from research and development (R&D) to marketing, finance or legal for example.

Critical to effective strategic influencing and alliance management is the ability to be a good listener. It requires listening to each party to fully understand objectives, needs and points of view. It is only in this way that you can put together win-win goals to serve each party’s long-term interests.

Communicating Skills

Demonstrating top-notch communication skills supports strategic influencing. Communication skill is the ability to communicate ideas to the right people (team or sub-team), at the right time, in the right way (presentation, email, text, etc.) and in the right amount (detailed discus-sions vs. quick updates) to garner the support of others. This typically involves knowing each stakeholder’s “currencies” or triggers that motivate them to action. Without this support from the organization or a “champion,” forward momentum will slow or cease.

Talent for Relationsihp Building and Maintenance

The most successful OI professionals tend to be well-networked both within and outside the organization. More than just the number of acquaintances, individuals with a talent for relationship building and maintenance develop quality relationships by building rapport, trust and personal credibility. They effectively manage key stakeholders and people working with them.

In the context of a project, those with these skills demonstrate the ability to build and maintain alignment, spot and resolve conflict, demonstrate empathy, establish effective ways of working, see situations from multiple angles and maintain strong relationships while negotiating win-win deals.

Quick Study

Even for an organization the size of Unilever, there may not be a technical expert within the organization to help evaluate every technical opportunity. This is particularly true when the technology is emerging or disruptive. As such, the OI professional must be able to quickly get up to speed and communicate the opportunity in a clear, transparent but motivating manner to the organization. This includes both the rewards and possible risks. The faster the individual can come up to speed, the easier he or she can spot potential issues that could derail the project, thereby helping mitigate risks.

We find that successful OI practitioners and intrapreneurs are energized by learning new technical subjects and demonstrate a mental flexibility that allows them to apply knowledge from one area to another in new ways. The OI practitioner who discovers and leads an opportunity may remain a core team member or may assume a project leader role.


Tolerance for Uncertainty

Like most innovation projects, OI projects require a high tolerance for uncertainty due to technology, market, business-related or other reasons. OI professionals must feel comfortable making decisions based on what they know “now,” despite not having perfect information, understanding that they will revise plans when more information is available. An insistence on precision or an individual who succumbs to “analysis paralysis” is not a good match for this role.

Passion and Optimism

Finally, there are two emotional traits that are important for OI professionals—passion and optimism. Perhaps it is best captured by a quote widely attributed to Steve Jobs, “My experience has been that to create a compelling new technology is so much harder than you think it will be, that you are almost dead when you reach the other shore.”

To make it to the other shore, it is vital to stay above the fray, keep moving forward and stay positive. OI professionals must believe in the opportunity as their passion becomes their best ally to see it through to success.


The role of the OI professional is to bring forth opportunities through partnership more effectively than an organization can do alone. Based on our personal experience, we believe there are at least seven soft skills that underlie this goal, including:

  1. Intrapreneurial orientation;
  2. Strategic influencing;
  3. Top-notch communication skills;
  4. Talent for relationship building and maintenance;
  5. Being a quick study;
  6. Tolerance for uncertainty; and
  7. Passion and optimism.

Whether you are enhancing your company’s innovation capabilities or interviewing candidates for a new OI group, one thing is certain: Your ability to ultimately drive growth for your company will in part be influenced by the soft skill set your OI practitioners bring to the table. That is because OI success is about building and maintaining relationships and establishing trust to create mutually beneficial opportunities.

About the Authors

Gail Martino, PhD, is manager of open innovation for Hair and Skin Categories globally at Unilever. Prior to joining Unilver, she worked in research and development at The Gillette Company. Prior to her corporate career, she held academic positions at Colgate University and at the John B. Pierce Laboratory at Yale University School of Medicine.

John Bartolone, PhD, is director of open innovation at Unilever and is responsible for Skin and Hair Categories globally. During his tenure at Unilever, he has published more than 20 patents and 25 peer-reviewed papers. He holds a Master and Doctorate degree in Biophysics and Biochemistry from the University of Connecticut where he was also an assistant professor in residence.

Editor's Note:

Unilever was recognized as a finalist for the Product Development and Management Association’s (PDMA) 2011 Outstanding Corporate Innovator Award. A key part of Unilever’s ongoing innovation success has come from formal open innovation efforts. The content above is based on the authors’ collective experience working as open innovation (OI) practitioners at Unilever, where they helped build OI capability and put in place a process called Want-Find-Get-Manage® based on the model proposed by Dr. Gene Slowinski of Rutgers University.

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