This article from Matt Burns at Unearthed Solutions gives a fresh breakdown of the structured stages of an open innovation prize challenge. Headquartered in Perth, Western Australia, Unearthed Solutions helps its clients in the mining and mineral extraction industry resolve their business challenges by sharing them with a wide community to deliver crowdsourced solutions. Though relatively new to the crowd space, Matt brings a career background from energy and technology, and collaborates with Unearthed’s industry partners (which is how they refer to their clients) to overcome their toughest industry obstacles. He’s happy to share the processes that Unearthed has developed since it launched in 2013.

The Process

Breaking the process down into defined phases ensures a challenge can be communicated clearly to external solution providers, and is easier for all stakeholders to follow progress and support the key aims.

The key phases are:

  • Industry Partner Engagement
  • Opportunity Identification & Verification
  • Challenge & Success Definition
  • Challenge Framing
  • Community Engagement

Partner Engagement

Before anything else happens, Unearthed Solutions has learned that it is vital to secure partner buy-in to the process, and agree on what it wants to achieve, before starting. Hoping that acceptance of the process and commitment to the outcomes (implementation) materialise after a project has started does not always prove to be reliable.

Working with an open innovation platform can be difficult for a partner company that is more used to buying fully-provided solutions, rather than entering a collaborative process to develop solutions. The process can involve sharing internal information that would have previously been considered confidential; draw project teams together from different company departments; and assign roles to individuals that are outside their normal lines of reporting to management (who might feel side-lined and threatened).

Success at this preliminary stage comes from personal contact with key individuals, the creation of a rapport and trust.

Opportunity Identification & Verification

Those initial conversations give a general idea, at a high level, of the overall issues a partner seeks to resolve. We then drill down to arrive at a series of specific matters, ensure they are really the most important ones, and verify they are crowd-solvable. This is important as it ensures there is a real opportunity for our community and that the challenge can drive real impact to the business.

Unearthed Solutions goes beyond head office staff to consult with their partners

I’ve found the most effective way of doing this is to assess further high-level detail, create a plan  and secure endorsement from relevant business leaders that operate closer to the challenging issues (Site Managers, Executives, Heads of Department, etc.) to proceed.

However, as much as this consultation stage is necessary to move forward confidently, it often uncovers other core stakeholders. Our partner organisations tend to be extremely large with many moving parts, so one challenge often impacts multiple teams. We loop back and ensure these teams are also on-board with our challenge-solving approach, and the novel way they may have to work with us. Then, when it comes to framing the challenge or assessing solutions, these additional teams often have further valuable insight we wouldn’t have otherwise gained.

Defining the Challenge – and Incentives for Innovators

The goal here is to discover all the information an external innovator would need to know to solve the challenge. My approach to this is to ask open-ended, probing questions, paired with some simple root cause analysis. Some examples of these questions:

  • What is the current process for handling this?
  • What is the impact of this problem?
  • What happens if this doesn’t get solved?
  • What’s been tried already, why hasn’t that worked?
  • What does success look like for solving this problem?

Once we have a deeper insight into the problem and a clear definition of success, we work with our industry partner to clearly define the opportunity and incentives for innovators. In most instances, there is prize money and/or the opportunity for pilots and trials or co-development.

Challenge Framing

We have to articulate a challenge in a way that is clear and easily understandable to innovators, and ensure any necessary domain knowledge is also provided and explained. One of the benefits of Unearthed’s process is many of our innovators and best solutions come from other industries.

We use a standard format that ensures a level of consistency, all the required information, and a simple, easy to understand challenge for non-sector experts.   

  • Background of the organisation
  • the Current Processes related to the challenge
  • the Problem being faced
  • the Challenge to our community (or “the ask”)
  • the Opportunity to be involved

Engaging our Community

We communicate fresh challenges to relevant community members through a variety of tools including email, webinars, newsletters, forums, and videos. We also aim to provide our community with as much exposure to our industry partner as possible, and continue using these tools and methods to generate ongoing interest and engagement in any challenge.

Engaging with a wide community of experts gives us the ability to gather a vast array of ideas and ways of solving challenges while helping to build meaningful relationships between startups, innovators, SMES and entrepreneurs, and our industry partners. During my time at Unearthed, this is where I think we have been able to deliver, and continue to deliver, some of the most impact to everyone involved.

Putting Process in to Practice

I’ve had my eyes opened to the different unconventional, novel and innovative approaches people are taking to solve some of the most challenging problems being faced in the Mining and Resources industry. Our community is constantly surprising me with not just new ideas and solutions, but also new ways of thinking and working. This drives me to do the same.

One of the challenges that’s a great example of this process and one I’m particularly proud of is the currently live Beat the Heat challenge with our partner Newcrest, which seeks to find ways to reduce the impact of high ground temperatures on their gold mine based on a dormant, geothermally-active volcano at Lihir. Our process has been crucial to getting this challenge live and the right people involved. The challenge is live until 31st July 2020 and you can see some of the excellent innovative solutions that have already been submitted.

How Open Innovation Enables External Communities to Solve Mining Industry Challenges