Determining How Much Time to Dedicate to Innovation

Companies know innovation is critical to long-term survival, but even creative giants like 3M and Google have struggled with policies that give their engineers time to tinker.

While popular creative wisdom suggests leaders must schedule time for innovation to occur, the question becomes how much time companies should devote each week.

There are two different approaches to implementing an innovation program, but the most important thing is to make the time you allocate effective and to initiate productive discussions with your employees in pursuit of innovation.

The 20 Percent Approach

3M and Google are both famous for their policies that encourage employees to spend time at work each week focused on side projects. At Google, this “20 percent of time” policy famously spawned the creation of Gmail, Google Transit, and many other popular programs. At 3M, allowing employees to spend 15 percent of their time innovating has led to products that have brought in millions of dollars in revenue. 

But when a new CEO joined 3M and decided to apply Six Sigma thinking, the innovation process was systematized to drive out waste, and innovation was destroyed rather than fostered. Subsequently, innovation was reinstated as a critical ingredient for the success of 3M, and its performance improved considerably.

This past fall, reports circulated that Google essentially did away with its “20 percent of time” innovation program.

Although Google insists the policy remains in place, the reports raised questions for managers: How can HR leaders find a happy medium between encouraging time for innovation and insisting on core productivity without creating too rigid a structure? What if you’re in a field that doesn’t need to simply give employees extra lab time to innovate? Or, more likely, what if you simply can’t afford to allocate an entire day each week to innovation?

This is where the project-driven approach can be applied to create structure without a hard-and-fast weekly schedule.

The Project-Driven Approach

This alternative to the “20 percent of time” policy is easier to manage in terms of expectations and outcomes. Companies using this approach typically define design challenges for innovation and set aside a time to accomplish broad goals, usually establishing deadlines of one to two years. This keeps the innovation challenge at the forefront of everyone’s mind and provides enough time to explore a range of needs and solutions before finalizing a response.

When you set broader goals with specific deadlines, you don’t need employees to dedicate an entire day of every week to innovation. You can set aside larger chunks of time for group projects when your team has capacity and scale back during the busiest times without losing momentum. Keeping innovation going during all seasons is essential if you want to thrive rather than just survive.

How to Structure Innovation for Success

If you think your company would benefit from either of these approaches, here are some things to keep in mind as you coach your employees and team leaders to innovate.

If It’s Not on the Schedule, It Won’t Happen

Making time for innovation is as simple as putting it on your calendar. Carve out time for customer experience exploration, divergent thinking, and collaboration with cross-organizational peers. While it’s great to do this work in larger blocks of time, even taking an hour to identify a design challenge or conduct situational customer interviews can keep ongoing innovation efforts alive.

Two Heads Are Better Than One, So Buddy Up

Of all the simple changes to make in terms of fostering innovation, helping individuals find a partner in creativity offers great returns. Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak, John Lennon had Paul McCartney, and Tina Fey has Amy Poehler. Creative partnerships can deliver an energy based on diverse experiences that leads to innovation magic. Be a matchmaker — if one person slides, the other can prod him to make time for innovation.

Pick One Thing — Anything — but Pick Something

Too many people worry about all the things they might do and end up doing none of them. Help your people pick areas to focus on. They don’t have to be huge to begin with, but they should push employees to their limits. Help them prioritize and focus on a key emphasis area for the year or quarter so they have something to gain by committing to it.

Make It Visible

Many ideas suffer from a lack of clarity because they spend too much time rattling around inside someone’s head and not enough time being developed. Have people make their thinking visible. Visual reminders help people come back to their work time and time again. Capture the work through sketches, diagrams, notes, mind maps — whatever will make the effort live and breathe. This also attracts and invites the participation of others.

Celebrate Progress

Short-term wins are an essential ingredient for long-term success. By asking people to share their progress over time and recognizing them for it, you can help foster a “can-do/will-do” spirit that’s contagious across the enterprise.

Engage in Effective Conversations

As you develop and fine-tune the right structure for your company, you want to reserve specific times for the creative process while also allowing for flexibility. A strict, rigid structure can suppress innovation, but zero regulation will simply waste time. The key to finding the right balance is intentional conversations between executives and the employees you hope will innovate.

1. Start with the topic of users/customers/stakeholders. You’d be surprised at how much it can energize your people to discuss the needs and wants of the individuals who use your products and services. The more intimately your teams understand those desires, the more easily they can develop new ideas to serve their audience.

2. Follow up by asking who they’re working with outside their immediate team. Diversity of knowledge, skills, and experience makes for more robust innovation practices and outcomes. By asking who a person is working with outside his team, you are setting the stage for broader, cross-functional engagement.

3. Learn about the experiments taking place. The best innovation requires applied experimentation to succeed. Experiments should be small-scale, simple, and inexpensive to run. By asking about them, you should be able to develop conversations that support the active pursuit of innovation.

Fostering a spirit of innovation in your enterprise and encouraging people to take the time for activities that support innovation ensures that you’re doing more than keeping the lights on and the doors open. Innovation is about the long-term health of your organization. If you don’t take time to invest in the future, you might not like where you end up. So make it a priority today and ensure tomorrow’s success. 

Andrew (Drew) C. Marshall is the Principal of Primed Associates, an innovation consultancy. He lives in central New Jersey and works with clients across the U.S. and around the world. He is a co-host of a weekly innovation-focused Twitter chat, #innochat; the founder, host, and producer of Ignite Princeton; and a contributor to the Innovation Excellence blog. He is also providing support for the implementation of the Design Thinking for Scholars model with the Network of Leadership Scholars (a network within the Academy of Management).

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