What's your day job?
While his statement was a bit abrupt, it wasn't unsuspected. In every innovation project I've lead, or coached, or participated in, someone has raised the question about priorities and time commitments. It's a fair question, and one that is unfortunately left exceptionally vague. That question is: where should I spend my time - doing an excellent job completing near term priorities (my "day job") or doing the best I can, using unfamiliar tools and techniques, to generate ideas that may, or may not, be successful?
This is an unfortunate, and unfair, dilemma to place an individual in. Both current work and innovation work are extremely important, so executives expect and demand both. Executives want and need perfect near term execution, to achieve quarterly forecasts. However, they also know that unless interesting and valuable new products are generated on a consistent basis, growth will slow and differentiation disappear. So, rather than force themselves to choose, they simply tell employees that both are exceptionally important, and leave it to the innovation team to decide how much work will be committed to each task.
Unless and until the executive team changes existing compensation patterns, however, this isn't a real decision for most people. Compensation is based on completing the day job effectively, so the first bias is toward doing that work well. There are other factors that place a heavy thumb on the side of the scale that tilts toward the "day job". Those include familiarity with the work, expertise and knowledge that can be immediately applied, low risk, low uncertainty, and the reasonable certainty of success in the short run. Against these, stacked on the other side of the scale are: uncertain outcomes, risky procedures, little or no new compensation, the risk the project will be cancelled or abandoned, the risk that good ideas don't produce compelling new products or services, lack of expertise and many other barriers. So when an executive says innovation is very important, then neglects to change compensation schemes, neglects to reduce risks and uncertainties, and, most importantly in my mind, neglects to reduce short term responsibilities and burdens to free up appropriate bandwidth and time, he or she merely gives lip service to innovation, in the hope that a serendipitous idea will spring forth. Because certainly the executives know the dilemma that confronts the innovation team members.
When an innovation team debates about spending 4 to 8 hours a week to generate ideas to create the new product or service that's supposed to differentiate the company and spark new growth, you know that the team is conflicted with its short term and long term mission. You cannot adequately pursue an important "day job" and effectively develop ideas for radical or disruptive change. One of the responsibilities will simply not receive the time and attention it deserves. If innovation is important to your company, make it the "Day Job" of a significant number of people, at least during the innovation effort, or don't distract your team from their short term goals.
What's your "day job"? If innovation is important, will differentiate your company and will drive new revenues and profits, why wouldn't innovation be the most important "day job" in the business? We'd never think that people can close the books on a quarter on a part-time basis, or conduct basic R&D for just a few hours a week with any hope of creating a valuable new compound. Yet many organizations develop and deploy part-time innovators who have important day jobs, and wonder why innovation struggles.