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For innovation in the office, cut your team some slack

A prototyping mentality also necessitates investments in terms of hard resources, time and opportunity cost (iStock)Premium
A prototyping mentality also necessitates investments in terms of hard resources, time and opportunity cost (iStock)

  • Innovation necessitates a prototyping mentality, which is far removed from the efficiency mentality that most senior executives hone by default
  • Iteration should lead to better results, and you must be willing to start amid uncertainty instead of waiting for complete clarity

Slacking may seem like an unusual way to boost productivity and creativity, but several companies have experimented with backing employees’ risky ideas and have gained. Innovation, after all, comes with enabling employees to try new stuff, offering them critical resources and time.

Innovation necessitates a prototyping mentality, which is far removed from the efficiency mentality that most senior executives hone by default. Innovation requires time and freedom, and a mindset that allows mistakes. If the ethos of quality is “get it right the first time", that of innovation is “wrong the first time". Being wrong the first time isn’t easy as it often comes at the cost of personal reputation. As a result, most would happily low ball instead of aiming high. A prototyping mentality also necessitates investments in terms of hard resources, time and opportunity cost. Unless the leadership appropriates resources for such efforts, most employees would not even venture into risky bets. The need to cut some slack doesn’t come naturally to efficiency-minded managers, and yet, it is the oxygen of creative problem-solving.

In the 19th edition of the IBM Global C-Suite Study in which 2,148 CEOs were interviewed, the leaders cited two characteristics instrumental to promoting innovation: encouraging people to try new ideas and having rewards for fast failures and successful innovations. They hinted at the importance of cultivating autonomy and learning to experiment in cross-functional teams to lower the risk of failure and anticipate customer needs faster.

Most innovative organizations have policies in place to allocate resources, especially talent and their time, to projects with no immediate consequences. Such a provisioning of scarce resources can’t be a one-off practice but has to be a part of the organizational culture.

Google has the 20% time-off practice, borrowed from the legendary 3M, which institutionalized the 15% rule way back in 1945. Google’s 20% time-off policy, Innovation Time Off, requires staff from the engineering and technology functions to spend 20% of their paid time to pursue projects outside of their assignments. Managers are also required to spend no more than 70% of their time on core business. Of the rest, 20% must go to related but different projects, and 10% to entirely new businesses and products. Google has a position, Director of Other to help manage the 10% time requirement. If an employee doesn’t have some sort of a 20% project going on, it is perceived negatively in the Google community. These could be hobbies, moon-shot assignments, or social work.

On the upside of cutting teams some slack, Eric Schmidt, the former chief of Google, says in a podcast with Reid Hoffman, “Many, many initiatives in the company (Google) have come out of 20% time ideas. While the rule says you can do anything you want to with your 20% time, these people are computer scientists and engineers, they’re not going to veer too far away from their core business, and that is the genius of 20% time." Some of the Google’s popular products that were built during by employees making use of the Innovation Time Off policy include Orkut, Gmail, Google News and AdSense.

By not tying up every resource to visible opportunities or exploitation of existing avenues, you could bring about the desired transformation in ways of thinking and doing in your organization. For effective problem solving, you must allow for divergence before converging on specific problem areas or opportunities. Iteration should lead to better results, and you must be willing to start amid uncertainty instead of waiting for complete clarity. If the organization has a practice of provisioning resources for future bets, not tightly monitoring resources, and allowing people to go on a tangent once in a while, will allow innovation to thrive. In a strait-jacketed, efficiency-oriented culture, creativity has little chance of survival.

Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy.

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