Innovation is Not Free

by Paul Sloane

Allocating Time for InnovationOne of the most common barriers to innovation is lack of time. People are just too busy doing their day job to spend time trying new things. The common assumption is that working hard and working long hours are good things and sufficient for success. The mantra is “focus on delivering this quarter’s results.” But doing more of the same is not enough – we have to try the new.

It is as though we are so busy building rafts to cross the river that we never look up to consider building a bridge, or a tunnel or a dam or fording the river or building boats or planes or all the other things we could do. We just focus on producing those rafts.

If you want people to be creative, then set the goal (e.g. crossing the river) and then challenge them to come up with ideas. Give them time and some resources to test their ideas – to build prototypes, or to investigate what people elsewhere are doing.

Google allows its people to spend one day a week on innovative ideas. Is this a wasteful luxury? No. It has led to remarkable innovations such as Google Earth, Froogle and Gmail. Genentech has a similar provision for its people. Most organizations could not afford to give up as much time as Google or Genentech but the same principle still applies – you have to create some slack time in which people can experiment. You do not get innovation for free – you have to allocate time, money and people.

For many years 3M has allowed its scientists and engineers to spend up to 15% of their time on any project that interests them. They do not have to ask their manager’s permission but they do have to keep them informed of what it is they are doing. This permission to be free has resulted in countless ideas and innovations for 3M which is regularly rated as one of the most innovative companies.

The message is clear. The leader has to free time for innovation in order to empower people to come with great ideas and to explore them. Whether it is one day a week or one day a quarter, time for innovation is critical.

Paul SloanePaul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader published by Kogan-Page.

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