Avoiding innovation's 'silent killer'

All this week, innovation author and strategy guru Rowan Gibson answers pressing questions about the best ways to approach innovation. He will provide case studies of some of the world’s top brands, and he’ll share some tips that you can apply to your business immediately to bring measurable value to your innovation efforts. Follow along through the week, and weigh in with your comments at the bottom of each post.

Many Innovation efforts die because of a "lack of time" by individuals and managers.  How have you solved this vexing "silent" killer?

You’re right. In one survey, more than 500 senior and midlevel managers in large U.S. companies were asked to identify the biggest barriers to innovation in their respective organizations. And one of the most common responses was “lack of time.”

In an age when business worships at the altar of operational efficiency, and particularly in view of today’s tough economic times, organizations have simply been pulling the reins tighter and tighter. That gives most companies very little room for playing around with creative ideas, exploring new possibilities, and running lots of experiments.

Therefore, one of the fundamental challenges for leadership is how to create space for innovation in people’s lives — how to give them the extra bandwidth and scope they need for new thinking and innovation. Building a culture in which employees have time to imagine and experiment and develop their own ideas is the first commandment of innovation.

Innovation Commandments

The first commandment of innovation:

Thou Shalt Imagine and Experiment

For a lot of companies, the answer is to give certain employees a discretionary time allowance of, say, 10 or 15% which they can use to “dabble” with new ideas or work on their own “Pet Projects.” Here I’m thinking of organizations like Google, 3M, Whirlpool, W.L. Gore, and many others.

But again, innovation is not just about coming up with new ideas; it’s about what you do with those ideas — how you nurture and manage these potential opportunities from mind to market. So, as you rightly ask in your question, how can we also free up management time for innovation? That’s a really big issue, because innovators need the support of the company’s management infrastructure if they are going to stand any chance of making their ideas happen.

Whirlpool, the global appliances manufacturer, has clearly recognized this. In addition to freeing up time for people to innovate across the company, Whirlpool has also set up innovation boards in various regions and in each business unit, comprised of senior leaders who are responsible for steering innovation activities. Every month, innovation board members set aside a minimum of a half day to a full day to meet and review ongoing innovation projects. These meetings ensure that management time is carved out from the normal workday and devoted exclusively to innovation issues, thus focusing top management time and attention on innovation.

In addition, all senior executives are asked to set aside time — both for themselves and their work units — to advance innovation projects, and have been made accountable for helping would-be innovators find time during regular work hours to pursue their ideas. By creating this extra bandwidth for people to work on new ideas, Whirlpool’s leaders have been able to unleash the imagination of employees across the organization and create a slew of new innovation opportunities.

So companies need to ask themselves whether they are giving their people the time and space they need to exercise their innovation muscles. Do they have a legitimate and acknowledged mechanism through which employees can dedicate a certain percentage of discretionary time to innovative projects? Are leaders at every level accountable for helping employees take advantage of this mechanism? Does top management reserve time for regular meetings where the sole purpose is to discuss the company’s growth and innovation efforts, reflect on new strategic insights and ideas, track ongoing innovation projects, set priorities, and allocate resources? Would a large percentage of the employees — outside of R&D and new product development — say that innovation is part of their job? Is innovation on every single executive’s agenda? Have senior leaders and midlevel managers set aside significant time and space for pursuing innovation activities and for mentoring innovators?

If the answers to many or all of these questions are negative, it may be that a company needs to think seriously about freeing up more time, energy, and brainpower across the organization to devote to innovation and growth.

Rowan Gibson is a global business strategist, a bestselling author and an expert on radical innovation. He is also one of the world’s most in-demand public speakers. Rowan’s books have been translated into over 20 languages. His latest book, Innovation to the Core, is published by Harvard Business School Press. He may be contacted at rg@rowangibson.com.

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