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For Innovation, Treat Me Like A Child

Mark Mzyk | March 16, 2009

Here are several quotes from Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation:

Teams with healthy idea life cycles are easy to spot: ideas flow between people easily and in large volumes.

Teams that innovate are great places for ideas to live – like happy pets, they’re treated well, get lots of attention, and are shared among people who care deeply about them.

The life of ideas is the responsibility of whoever is in charge.  He defines it by his responses and behavior, especially when he’s challenged by someone else’s ideas.

Teams with scorched deserts where creative jungles should be usually have the manager to blame.

— Selected quotes from pages 101-102, The Myths of Innovation: Chapter 7; Your boss knows more about innovation than you

Here’s another quote, that I’m sure you’ve heard: If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

Companies these days claim they want innovation.  IBM jumps to mind because of their commercials.  I’m reminded of the one of the guy in the super hero suit who runs around talking about ideation.  Unfortunately, this often doesn’t seem to be far from the truth.  Innovation is expected to happen at the snap of a finger, or during an hour long brainstorming meeting.

If innovation happens this way, how come our best ideas often come to us after we’ve slept on it or when we’re in the shower?

Companies don’t want to put in the time to do it right, so they’re often failing and hoping they have the time to do it over.

Innovation takes cultivation.  It doesn’t come overnight, it comes from a sustained culture that welcomes ideas.  It is that simple.  The more ideas, the more likely someone is going to find the magical combination that leads to the next great thing.

A corollary is that you can’t have innovation without experimentation.  I may offer you all the great ideas in the world, but if you never let me act on them, why am I going to keep offering up ideas?  You don’t have to indulge every idea I have.  I just need the occasional chance to explore further.  It doesn’t have to result in a final product or even a prototype.  It just needs to be enough exploration to see if the idea is viable.  That little show of confidence, that you have faith in me to let me pursue an idea for a bit, is enough to keep my intrinsic motivation charged, so I’ll keep suggesting ideas.

If you want innovation from me, treat me like a child. Let me play. It doesn’t have to be every day, or every week.  However, if you let me play, I’ll invent things you didn’t imagine, and we’ll be the richer for it.

2 Comments

  1. Comment by Chris:

    I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes in the workplace we get discouraged from bringing up new ideas or new ways to do things because it just gets shoved aside never to see the light of day.

    I think that this ties into the 20% Google gives their engineers time to “play.” Lots of great products have come around them having the free time to work on what they liked for a bit.

    My favorite post thus far.

    March 17, 2009 @ 08:02
  2. Comment by Mark:

    I think you’re right Chris, that part of Google’s success has come from giving their engineers the free time to work on what they feel like pursuing (within reason, I’m sure). However, there is some debate about how much the 20% time is true (at least today). I’ve seen reports that it’s more like 120% percent time – you get your 20% after giving 100%.

    Still, even if companies can’t give, or don’t want to give employees 20% time, I think that even something like a day every month or even an afternoon every month of free time to explore would be worth giving to employees, and seeing what results.

    Another good example is Joel’s story about how the Joel on Software job board came to be:

    http://www.inc.com/magazine/20090101/how-hard-could-it-be-thanks-or-no-thanks_Printer_Friendly.html?partner=fogcreek

    It’s worth a read. I think it also teaches us that part of getting innovation to happen is knowing how to communicate and present an idea so that it appeals to others. It’s easy for the person who develops an idea to think it’s great, but that doesn’t mean others will.

    March 19, 2009 @ 08:38