Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Innovating 20% of the Time

This post is from awhile back, but it's so good that I just had to comment on it. Like a lot of controversial posts on HBR, the best reading is in the comments, and this one's got 73 of them.

Too much? Okay. Let me summarize.

Chris Trimble is skeptical of Google's 20% time--their stated practice of encouraging individuals to spend 20 percent of their time pursuing innovative projects of their own inspiration. He thinks it's a bad business bet, because people can certainly generate and explore innovative ideas with 20% of their time, but no one, working by themselves, can execute, can turn innovative ideas into profit-driving realities, with only 20% of their time. And execution, as Trimble says, is the other side of innovation. Without execution, you're not innovating. You're just generating ideas.

The commenters disagree. On a bunch of levels. The first guy out of the box accuses Trimble of not understanding how to manage very talented softwate engineers. Others chime in on the same theme, leaving me with the sense that these guys could land a rover made out of old Commodore 64 motherboards on Mars and collect rock samples with 20% of their time.

Here's my take--which is similar to several of the ideas expressed in the comments, so I'm not trying to take credit for it. Adopting something similar to Google's 20% time policy in your association probably won't by itself result in the kind of execution Trimble talks about and which, I believe, you need to do innovation right. But couple that policy with a transparent process by which ideas are selected and resourced for proper execution, and you may be able to create an environment where both sides of innovation occur. In other words, give your employees the freedom to experiment, test and propose new ways to better serve your members, and then choose the best ones (according to established criteria understood by all) to be further developed into actual programs and services.

If you're lucky, maybe your contribution to the process can represent less than 20% of your time.


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