How do you enable innovation?

Innovation is clearly a good thing.  Customers love innovative products – the iPod and the whole industry supporting it is a great example.  Management loves innovative thinking to improve internal processes – the whole agile movement in software development started with some folks thinking about how we can do things better.  Shareholders love both innovative products and processes as it increases revenue and profit.  Finally, employees love to work in a group that prides itself on its innovative thinking.

Our team has recently completed its annual performance review and goal setting cycle.  Since innovation is clearly such a good thing, our management decided that we should try to set some goals around innovation.  But how do you go about setting a reasonable goal?  How do you measure if you’ve been successful? 

More important than the goals and measurements is this – how do you enable a culture of innovation?  The 3M Corporation has long set the standard for driving success through innovation.  As documented in Built to Last, the growth of the company in the early days was due to a culture which encouraged the organization to ‘self-mutate from within’.  From that culture spawned sand paper, masking tape, scotch tape, post-it notes, and many more products.  Customers, management, shareholders, and employees (which even included me as a Coop Engineer during college) have all been happy for a lot of years!

3M has several mechanisms in place to encourage innovation.  Probably the most visible and intriguing is the “15 percent rule”.  This rule encourages technical people to spend up to 15% of their time working on projects of their own choosing and initiative. 

Lots of other companies have been labeled as ‘innovative’, including Microsoft.  But I’m more interested in enabling innovation in the small.  What mechanisms can a department in a large company put in place to enable innovation?  What can I do as a team leader? 

I have a couple of ideas, but I would love to hear from others.  Please add a comment or contact me directly if you have some ideas for enabling innovation – either a new idea or something that you’ve seen that worked well in the past.

Comments (3)

  1. AndrewSeven says:

    One mistake I have seen made with side projects is forcing them into production.

    It can be very discouraging to build something fast and loose as a proof of concept then being told to deploy it as though it was a real project.

  2. tom barta says:

    I agree with Andrew. The best products are not necessarliy the first, but the ones that are "done right". The iPod vs earlier MP3 players.

    Some things that have worked for me: 1) "smart" brainstorming 2) valueing input all the way from thelowly tech on up 3) a reward system that allows failure to NOT be career-limiting– and gives TEAM plus individual recognition for success 4) Decisive, perfectionist leadership on the final product (look at Steve Jobs, again). Great products are designed in groups, but they are NOT "designed by Committee", or focus group.