Innovation is about commitment

I was talking to a friend of mine last night and we happened upon the topic of how the company he works for talks constantly about innovation while paradoxically producing less and less of it. There's a simple reason for this, best illustrated by two examples.

  • Innovation in a startup: Have an idea. Put it in the codebase for the next deployment.
  • Innovation in a bureaucracy: Have an idea. Discuss it with the Innovation Director to see if it fits on the Innovation Lab's roadmap. Wait for the monthly Innovation Committee to compare your idea to what other companies in the marketplace are doing, to see if it can be re-imagined in a form customers will be more familiar with. Schedule it as a far-future project.

The former has its own problems, but it raises an important point. Despite having no team, no committee, no executive... the startup in this situation is more committed to innovation. Accidentally, in most cases, but it's still an environment where people can work on their own ideas and see them released, even if they get ignored, fail spectacularly or crash the site. The bureaucracy, on the other hand, has spent a fortune on a structure which hives off new and disruptive ideas from the front line into project limbo where they can do no harm. Ultimately it trains everyone into the mindset that innovation is something to avoid, because it's not worth the time and effort trying to get new ideas into production.

20% time is a commitment. Letting a team push their own stories into a project (and having the courage to approve them) is a commitment. Giving each of your scrum teams the chance to work on a pure skunkworks project between more conventionally business-driven work is commitment. The investment needed is not the easy option of hiring a few people and creating innovation roadmaps or suggestion boxes, it's about taking your development team out of constant deadline crunches and firefighting, and giving them to time to follow their own ideas.

(The upshot of this is that if you're going to hire someone to manage innovation, then their job ought to be about removing impediments and fighting the kind of attitudes that demand everyone to be assigned to revenue-generating tasks 100% of their time.)