One Simple Way of Making Your Company More Innovative

By Meredith Summers Posted July 19, 2017

Where do good business ideas come from? Do you feel like your business just doesn't generate enough new ideas that help increase revenue, improve productivity, or release cutting edge products and services? Your business could be in a rut. But hope is not lost. Innovation stems from a change in mindset and a break from the norm. What does that really mean in practice? See how this works in the real world at real companies, and how you might apply the principles to your own organization.

Going Off the Rails

Have you ever been in a meeting where people spit-fired ideas back and forth? Maybe it started off as serious and then turned silly, or maybe they became progressively less connected to company culture and mission? Whether you were one of the people joining in or the person leaning back in their chair in exasperation, it's worth a deeper dive into the effectiveness of straying away from the normal course of business for an hour or two.

For example, the team at Groupon originally started as an organization to give the public an easier way to connect and rally around different political causes they cared about. It wasn't until they started exploring the idea of helping people save money when they happened to stumble upon what would eventually become Groupon. Talk about a turnaround that worked out (well, at least at first.) And this, of course, becomes the crux of the issue: wild brainstorming, side projects, and outside research aren't complete wastes of time — but only when done right and in moderation. So how do you figure out where to draw the line?

Moderately Helpful

The most famous example that may come to mind when it comes to a concrete answer is Google's famous 20% concept. The idea is that Google employees take 20% of their working hours and devote it to whatever they feel would make the company better and more profitable. If that sounds vague, it's because it is vague. Employees do need to have sound justification for their ideas (which means they can leave their thrice rejected screenplay at the door.)

Beyond the obvious red flags though, Google gave employees a lot of leeway when it came to their projects. Upper management at Google started pursuing the development and implementation of these ideas at the point they showed demonstrable progress. You may recognize some of their achievements because they came in the form of features like Gmail and AdSense.

Scaling Down

Google may have the resources and the reputation to implement the 20% rule so all their geniuses can sit around being geniuses, but what about your company? Maybe it doesn't seem like there's any time to devote to something else, let alone an hour and a half a day or more. This is a good time for a manager to start adopting this rule for their own team.

There are some people who are so routine-focused that any type of demand to be creative will only leave them feeling confused, inadequate or annoyed. You also don't have to use 20% as a hard and fast rule. For example, a small start-up called Server Density allowed their team one week of every six to focus on other endeavors. Developers began working on some of the smaller customer complaints that they never seemed to have the time to address before, only to stumble upon ways to streamline and simplify how they delivered data to their clients.

Implementation

It takes a certain amount of maturity from the team to understand that whatever time they devote to side projects may be far more challenging than anything they're currently doing. You may want to only introduce the rule to certain departments or positions, and then see where it leads. LinkedIn famously started with hack days, where they would see how fast developers could write code until those hack days blossomed into the InCubator.

In the InCubator, employees had a full 90 days to work on whatever they wanted. However, LinkedIn didn't just check in with employees after 90 days hoping for a miracle. They checked in with them at regular intervals to determine the consistency and the relevancy of the work they were doing. Those who have implemented this plan recommend prompting employees before they pick a goal by reminding them of the major problems the company faces (whether abstract or tangible.)

Those who have implemented this plan recommend prompting employees before they pick a goal by reminding them of the major problems the company faces (whether abstract or tangible.)

Far from stifling their own creativity, you're simply encouraging employees to investigate more into a problem and potentially come up with solutions. When it comes to your company's results, you're looking for actionable items from the team that can be delegated to become a full-scale project. If employees are pitching pie-in-the-sky ideas only, then it may be time to reassess the program.

The Reality

No one, not even Google, is claiming that this idea is absolutely necessary for driving innovation. In fact, Google's HR director Laszlo Bock commented that the 20% rule has fallen somewhat to the wayside. The rule is not enforced by upper management, nor is it touted as the only way to break barriers. In practice, this work may only account for 5% of an employee's time, or it may only be done during an employee's free time, which can lead to burn-out pretty quickly for employees.

But the real value of trying this method may be wrapped up in the mindset of the program. In this case, when a company actively places importance on new ideas and of pushing boundaries rather than just talking about it, it sends a powerful message to employees that they're not just there to be a cog in the machine. Companies who have tried this say that it helps shape their employees' approach to problems, so they can be an active participant in the future of the company.

Meredith Summers

Professional freelance writer for companies who want to get more done. She enjoys reading, going to the beach, and brief descriptions of herself.

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