No Time to Innovate

Take an Innovation Vacation

No Time to InnovateA popular set of questions that I get asked repeatedly by clients and audience members includes the following:

We know we need to innovate, but who has time?

How do companies balance the day to day operations with the need to innovate?

Without a budget to allocate people to innovation, how can I make innovation part of people’s day jobs?

We all know that when it comes to business, and life in general, that there are two major constraints we all face – and often trade off one against the other – those two constraints are time and money.

Every organization may understand the need for innovation, but it is difficult to execute in a repeatable way because so many of our organizations are set up to maximize the extraction of value from today’s operations and do a poor job of balancing this admirable and necessary goal with the need to develop tomorrow’s revenue and profit-generating operations.

Some organizations set up research and development departments, new product development departments, corporate venturing arms, incubators, or skunkworks to try and address the needs for future revenue and profit streams, but this limits the number of people that can potentially contribute to the potential innovation process and success of the organization – and isolates the efforts from other valuable perspectives and inputs.

Other organizations like Google and 3M also have some of these structures, but in addition try and say to employees that they can spend up to a certain percentage of their time on innovation projects (or whatever work-related pursuit they might want). In 3M’s case the figure is 15% and in Google’s case it is 20%.

There is only one problem with percent time.

The day-to-day deadline pressures and fire drills never disappear in any organization (even an innovative one), and so often the joke goes – sure Google employees get 20% time, but only if it’s on Saturday or Sunday.

So what’s the solution?

Well, after talking with the folks at Intuit as part of the research for my next book project, I’ve come to discover that they approach the time for innovation problem slightly differently.

Instead of just allowing people to spend up to a blanket 10% of their time on innovation projects, instead they allow employees to accumulate that time and then schedule time off to pursue a specific innovation project, often doing so at the same time with 3-4 other employees so they can collaborate on the project idea and push it forward.

I like to call it taking an innovation vacation.

I think this is the best approach I’ve heard so far to balancing the needs of the day to day business and its need for predictable resourcing, with the desire to invest in innovation to sustain the business into the future.

Allowing employees to schedule a collaborative innovation vacation achieves SEVERAL key business goals:

  1. Predictability - It allows managers to do capacity planning and schedule around the employee’s absence
  2. Retention - Allowing employees to take a week or two here or there to pursue an innovation project they are interested in, is likely to lead to higher job satisfaction and retention
  3. Collaboration - If you encourage people to take their time off as cross-functional groups, we know that not only do diverse teams solve problems better, but we also know from EMC’s data on innovation submissions and finalists that projects pursued as teams instead of by individuals are 33% more likely to make the final cut
  4. Increased Organizational Performance - Organizations that have deeper networks and stronger cross-functional knowledge (more T people) are more likely to work together more efficiently, have fewer blind spots, have higher employee engagement, and just have more fun

Time out for a sanity check. 10% time equates to about five weeks a year, and 20% time would equate to about ten weeks a year. So, if you choose to pursue an innovation investment strategy like innovation vacations, you must plan accordingly in terms of staffing (factoring in of course that most employees won’t make full use of it), but I believe it can be done and should be done – for the long-term health of the business.

We try and convince people to allocate 10-15% of their income towards retirement so that they have money to provide for themselves when they grow old and retire, why shouldn’t an organization allocate a similar percentage?

What do you think, could you establish something like this in your organization?

What would you do with an innovation vacation?

Build a common language of innovation on your team

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Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. Braden is also a co-founder of Innovation Excellence and founder of Business Strategy Innovation, a consultancy focusing on innovation and marketing strategy.

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8 Responses to No Time to Innovate

  1. Pingback: No Time to Innovate | Braden Kelley

  2. John Wolpert says:

    Braden, I think Intuit is taking an interesting approach to an old idea. I’d be interested to see the results of the practice.

    But I think it still leave a gaping hole in this question: “So what if the company is on a growth spurt that requires all hands on deck and your employee has just taken two weeks off and created a brilliant new business model?”

    Not a dumb one, but a really brilliant, executable, high-potential business opportunity. And let’s say that it needs to be executed right away to capture the opportunity. So here we have risk + opportunity, but a current business that would have to be de-prioritized to some degree to execute on the opportunity (assume a single-threaded business with limited resources…so not IBM or GE, which are portfolio companies).

    We so often say that we don’t need more ideas, that we need to take action on more of them. Not necessarily so. It really depends on the strategic state of the firm. Sometimes, the right answer is to say no, or perhaps to let the innovator spin out. In any event, what we really need to do is make sure that innovators (whether we give them flex-time, force them to do brainstorms or other “innovation games” or let them have innovation vacations) are given the right set of expectations. “We want to keep our innovation muscles limber, but don’t expect us always to act on your ideas, sometimes even when they are very good.”

  3. Braden Kelley says:

    I would agree that strategic state is very important. Staying limber is also important. Startups are often too busy innovating to innovate, but companies with one or more mature products or businesses that are looking for the next source for growth, obviously need to work to create the resource flexibility (time and money, human and financial) necessary to pursue the most promising innovation experiment opportunities. At the same time companies must decide how much innovation they can handle (or afford) and approach things accordingly. This is why a challenge driven approach to innovation is winning out over open approaches to innovation where companies take in ideas from everywhere within the organization, about anything, 24/7. Instead focusing people’s energy when you are ready and able to follow-through is much more powerful and respectful of people’s contributions.


  4. Braden Kelley says:

    Thanks! :-)


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