20% Off Innovation

Not long ago, I asked a gentleman what he did for a living. He responded, “I’m in marketing but I really do innovation.” When asked to expand on his response I received a vague description in which he used words like “creativity” and “imagination” and “leading-edge.” He had described innovation but not how he goes about innovating or how this makes a connection to marketing. I noted this and the conversation quickly changed subjects.

In President Obama’s Jan. 25 State of the Union Address “innovation” turned up quite a bit. He said we need to “out-innovate” the rest of the world. He also wanted to go about “encouraging American innovation.” He tied it to education, clean energy, and transportation and used innovation examples like the internet, Edison, and the Wright brothers to further expand the idea of America’s history of innovation.

In a recent commercial Nissan touts “Innovation for family, innovation for all” to describe their Quest model minivan. It comes with the usual features found in today’s minivans—power sliding doors, advanced climate control, DVD player, and an efficient engine. All of which are very nice but hardly comparable to the Wright’s first powered flight.

“Innovation” has become such a hot button word that it has, almost, completely lost its power. It’s the New Millennium word and will end up overused and faded like “extreme” eventually did in the 90s (“extreme’s” effective use officially ended with Taco Bell’s Extreme Quesadilla). Innovation is such an intangible, abstract word (it needs history and context and, like great art, is hard to describe but you know it when you see it) that many times companies slap it in their tag lines or mission statements without a clear picture of how to go about “innovating.” Worst of all these companies have no knowledge of fostering innovation.

But, since “innovation” is the action or process of innovating it may not be that hard to see. Take Google for instance. Google enables employees to spend 20% of their time—that’s 1 day out of 5—working on something that’s good for the company or good for the world. These are projects of the individual’s own choosing and do not need the approval of a manager, regardless of whether that manager thinks the project is a good idea. Think there’s a better way to write the search engine code? Take a crack at it. Have an idea for a new program? Spend next Tuesday developing it.

Some outcomes of this 20% time are Google News, Adsence, and Gmail. It can also be something as ubiquitous as Google Shuttle, the buses that bring people to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

The irony of Google’s 20% program is that it’s not really that innovative. 3M has been doing innovation-time since the 50s. Theirs is called the 15% Rule but has the same philosophy: think of a beneficial new product or process, we’ll give you the time to work on it. Scotch Tape, Scotch Guard, and the Post-It Note are all products of the 15% Rule. These products were created with no management oversight, formal budget, or mandate from 3M. It took a culture of valuing creativity, and a willingness to implement that value, in the company ethos to truly innovate.

So maybe that’s what “innovation” is. It’s a culture and philosophy, trust and support. It’s companies that value the upside-down pyramid: ideas begin and are developed by lower level employees rather than waiting for directives on how to innovate from managers. Another advantage of this inverse pyramid is its economy of time. Think of it this way: instead of getting forty people in a one hour meeting and coming up with an idea to innovate (that’s forty person-hours and one idea), a company like Google gets forty ideas. All because the ideas originate and are developed by the individual.

How a company uses the idea of “innovation” as a culture will probably define the new decade. These companies will be easy to identify: employees are empowered self starters, always a leader in the industry, and the company structure is jealously—but ineffectively—emulated by others.

Most importantly, however, these companies will never ever use the word “innovation.”