Monday, October 24, 2005

How do you do innovation?

There is a lot of hot air spoken about innovation. Indeed, there is probably more talk about innovation than there is actual innovation itself.

I started to get all excited about innovation on Friday, when one of my managers said:
“Allan, do you know anything we can do to improve innovation?”
Of course there is one obvious answer: 20% personal projects, its the 3M example – and now Google. Just about everyone seems to have heard this example so I’ll be brief in my comments: at 3M engineers are encouraged to spend about 20% (figure varies depending on who you read and which company it is) on “personal projects.” Some of these projects eventually make it to full products, like Post-it pads and Google News.

But are there other things you can do?

I was excited so I went home and started looking through some of my textbooks and journal archives, my question: just what do you do to produce innovation?

On the one hand innovation is just an extension of problem-solving, which is itself an example of learning. So doing innovation is firmly within the knowledge and learning agenda I keep banging on about. But on the other hand, innovation is so specific it is a subject in its own right.

Regular readers of this Blog will know I don’t have much time for “big brains”: I don’t believe that the CEO, CTO and a few managers can sit in the boardroom for six hours and come out with a new product. Most innovation is bottom-up.

Nor do I believe you can schedule innovation: Ever seen a project plan with a date pencilled in for innovation? No, you can’t timetable it.

So, how do you do it?

Looking at my books I find advice like: improve you ability to learn, trust your employees, organize your business structures to promote innovation, value innovation, align your HR policies (reward innovation and risk taking), don’t punish failure, and so on. These are all big, macro solutions, they may be necessary but they are not sufficient, you need something else.

You can set your business environment up to encourage innovation with these ideas, you can show people it is valued, but what do you do?

This is where the 20% personal project comes in. It is something you could do today. It is easy to see how you could get a new idea out of it – whether that is a product or process innovation.

A few months ago I was able to speak to someone who works at Google and they described how this works.

Engineers need to spend 20% of their time on a personal project. But many of them don’t know what to do, so most of them are open to suggestions. Meanwhile, the product managers have the opposite problem. They are identifying things the company could do, but without a prototype or proof of concept they can’t get any official resources.

So the product managers look around and find engineers who need projects. They then have to interest the engineers in working on their idea. If the project goes well they can then go official and ask for full project status.
(By the way, read my lips: No project managers!)

The trouble with this example, the 20% example, is the one everybody cites. It seems. When asked: “how do you do innovation?” People reply with a 20% example. What is actually happening is that this example is getting in the way of other ideas and examples of how you do innovation!

So, dear readers, the challenge for you:
what does your company do to encourage innovation?

I need your ideas and experiences.