Perhaps the single biggest barrier to innovation for many organizations is not devoting sufficient time to innovation. Luckily, there are many ways organizations can successfully make space for innovation.
LET’S START 80 YEARS AGO…
In 1948, 3M implemented a new policy, allowing its employees to spend 15% of their time pursuing personal projects. The policy was designed to encourage innovation, letting employees explore potential products and businesses that weren’t currently part the company’s product line. It was a policy that turned out to be worth billions of dollars to 3M.
As a result of this policy, 3M invented countless successful products, including the billion-dollar powerhouse, Post-it notes. Spencer Silver, a 3M scientist, was working on developing a strong adhesive for the aerospace industry, but instead, he accidentally created a weak adhesive that wouldn’t stick well to surfaces. Despite this initial failure, Silver continued to tinker with the adhesive, eventually discovering its potential as a bookmark. His colleague, Art Fry, had the idea to add the weak adhesive to paper, leading to the creation of the first Post-it note.
CREATIVITY REQUIRES A “SURPLUS OF TIME”
Noted expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and perhaps most famously the author of Flow) noted in his book Creativity that creativity requires “a surplus of time.” He proposed a theory that the times of greatest human flourishing and creativity came when civilizations also had a surplus of time to explore and invent. Think of the Renaissance: a lack of wars, major famines and pandemics allowed for an explosion in writing, music, mathematics and more.
This plays out in organizations as well. Having enough time is critical for innovation because it allows individuals and teams to fully explore and develop their ideas. Innovation often requires time to research, experiment, and refine concepts. When individuals and teams are rushed or have limited time, they may not be able to fully explore all possible avenues, leading to missed opportunities.
Innovation requires the ability to take risks and pursue unconventional approaches. This can be challenging in a fast-paced work environment where deadlines and other demands take priority. Having enough time to pursue innovation allows individuals and teams to take a step back, think creatively, and take the time needed to develop and test new ideas.
GOOGLE’S 20% TIME
Google’s 20% time was a policy that allowed Google employees to spend 20% of their work time on projects outside of their regular job responsibilities. This policy was implemented in order to encourage creativity and innovation within the company, and it was believed that by allowing employees to pursue personal projects, they would be able to bring fresh ideas and approaches back to their day-to-day work.
Under the 20% time policy, employees were free to work on any project of their choosing, as long as it was not in direct competition with Google’s core business. This policy was credited with contributing to the development of some of Google’s most innovative products, such as Gmail and Google Maps.
While Google has since discontinued the 20% time policy (now focusing on buildly dedicated innovation teams that have even more time to explore) it is still considered a prime example of how encouraging creativity in the workplace can lead to innovative solutions and improved results. By allowing employees to pursue their passions and interests, companies can tap into new ideas and approaches that can drive success and growth.
Surplus time was critical to the approach of Thomas Edison. Often referred to as the “Father of the Electric Age” Edison is credited with developing many important inventions, including the practical incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera.
Edison’s success as an inventor was due, in part, to his willingness to take his time and fully explore his ideas. He was known to work tirelessly on his inventions, spending long hours in his laboratory and conducting countless experiments. “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,” Edison said.
One of his most famous inventions, the light bulb, is a testament to his patience and determination. It took Edison thousands of failed experiments over several years to finally develop a practical and long-lasting incandescent bulb. But his persistence paid off, and his invention transformed the world, making electricity and artificial light widely available for the first time.
Ask: are we really designing our team or organization so it has the time it needs to innovate? Do we need to allow for 15% or 20% time to allow employees to explore? Do we need to establish a skunkworks or standalone innovation lab that gives a dedicated team the “time space” it needs to research, invent and refine bold new ideas for your organization?
Phillips & Co. is a leading innovation consulting firm.
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