Innovation is a hot topic in the IT industry. Everyone wants to create innovative products and processes, but no one knows how to make it happen. More specifically, no one seems to have time to make it happen.
Admit it. At times, doesn't innovation seem absolutely incompatible with the rhythm of the IT organization? Many IT organizations and small technology companies are driven by the urgent rather than the important. Sure, innovation is important, but how does it stack up against getting a bug fixed for a customer at 4:57 p.m. on a Friday afternoon?
How do technology organizations support innovation in the busy rhythm of the real world? Here are a few principles to keep in mind if you want to make it work.
Create time for innovation
Innovation generally doesn't occur in the "spare change" of your schedule. Ideas can occur in the most random of moments, but for an idea to evolve into an innovation, you must schedule in time for the process to complete. Google is famous for allocating 20 percent of developers' time to innovation projects. This has led to a number of feature enhancements and successful products, like Gmail, Google Talk, and Z.
Perhaps you won't get your senior management team to agree to 20 percent, but try something smaller. At my company, we've implemented our version of something called "FedEx Day." (It's not our idea: read more about "delivering innovation overnight" here.) FedEx Day is set aside for developers to think and create freely, away from requirement documents and use cases. The idea of FedEx Day is to code, test, and ship working code all in a day.
Yes, it costs the company a day of normal productivity, but the return is well worth it. Recently, one of the FedEx Day projects turned into a new, more efficient workflow engine for our product.
Look for bright glimmers of innovation and celebrate them, in both formal and informal ways. For example, we turn FedEx Day into a friendly competition, in which teams compete for the (unbelievably tacky and ugly) Feddy Award. The point is this: Having fun and recognizing success ensure that innovation remains a high priority in your organization.
Innovation isn't just about technology
Sometimes innovation in a technology organization has nothing to do with technology at all. It also occurs when someone re-engineers our quality processes to deliver better results or finds a way to train new team members more effectively. Building a culture of innovation means identifying and celebrating it in all stripes.
Constraints are good
Some believe that innovation works best with no time constraints, an overabundance of resources, and a pristine environment. (When you find that job, let me know, so that I can wake you up, because you're dreaming.) Yet I believe that constraints on resources, time, and context are not only inevitable but actually helpful. Constraints sharpen our wits, focus our thinking, and therefore help us innovate. Don’t fall into the false notion that you need to be free from all constraints in order to create.
What do you think? How have you been able to stimulate innovation in a busy organization? Please share your ideas.