Much has been written about innovation at places like Apple and 3M. We love companies like these who live and breathe innovative cultures, making it a part of their core identity. Sure, Apple has Jobs and a cadre of uber-techies, while 3M has an almost 40-year legacy of allowing employees to dedicate 15% of their time to side projects. Theirs are corporate values that are challenging to replicate yet viable to use as a model.
There’s a fundamental dilemma with innovation. Companies crave it for the new consumers, categories and channels it can open up, but also revert to the basics when trying to improve the numbers— cutting costs, improving efficiency, directing resources to the traditional revenue streams. This problem becomes even more pronounced when companies remain traditionally operations or sales-focused because basing their business decisions proactively in consumer insights isn’t second nature.
When taking risks that involve the resistant steps toward innovation, many companies are looking for assurances that their investment will pay off. Though a reasonable concern, it can stifle true innovation through “analysis paralysis” and attempts to put real numbers against conceptual ideas.
But even if companies aren’t ready to take the business and cultural steps necessary to foster innovative environments, they can take a page from the playbooks of the leaders.
Take Apple. Steve has a personal hand in every new product that Apple launches, and when things don’t soar (like Apple TV), the company moves on. Does it make sense for the average corporation to have one person managing these decisions? Perhaps not. But what companies can do is introduce a “board of innovators” or decision makers who can act as de facto venture cap financers: Make a convincing pitch and win the prize of committed resources. By having leaders in place to make these decisions, particularly, cross-functional leaders, there are assurances that innovation is being resourced with the full knowledge of management, which in turn helps move projects along with fewer barriers. In addition, an internal venture-cap model can help establish a set criteria that projects need to meet in order to be considered for funding and resourcing.
In the case of 3M, they’ve had a successful strategy of allowing employees to devote 15% of their time to outside projects since the mid 1970’s. The beauty of this policy is that employees get to see its real results. Every year, 3M sponsors a school-style science fair, where employees make posters that explain their ideas and present them to the company. This offers opportunities for inventors to not only get input and build on their ideas, but also for the company to demonstrate their commitment to the program.
But dedicating 15% of time is easier said than done. There are sales meetings to prepare for, management presentations to make, P&Ls to run—it’s often not practical to dedicate this much time on a disciplined basis. What companies can do is allow employees who have great ideas to ask for the time to develop them, like a kind of “working vacation.” Make it culturally acceptable to pursue ideas outside of the usual objectives, and create rewards for people who do, whether their ideas are successful or not. By demonstrating a simple commitment to fostering new ideas, companies can be a more fertile ground for innovation.
It’s the steady state of dedication, and by walking the walk, companies can build a real culture of innovation.