Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Finding time to innovate

I've been in many corporate meetings that left me wondering where I could apply to get back the two hours I had just spent that were completely unproductive, so I am completely convinced that it is possible to lose time, or use it ineffectively in any organization.  But what's puzzling to me is the argument that I hear from many people that they need to "find" time to innovate, as if there are spare pockets of hours or days in hidden corners in their office, simply waiting to be discovered. 

Finding time to innovate is nonsensical, at several levels.  First, if an initiative is important to you or your management team, then those activities make it onto your calendar.  Second, if you are good at what you do, or are in demand from others, then they will place demands on your calendar to participate in their work or activities.  Third, once the calendar is full, it's hard to take on something new, and many of us allow our calendars to fill up with tactical, firefighting exercises that are urgent but not important.  Only then do many executives state that they simply "can't find the time" to innovate.

I would suggest that we reverse the order of placing items on the calendar.  If innovation is important, then time for innovation needs to go on the calendar.  This will provide evidence to those in your sphere of influence that you are placing an emphasis on creativity and innovation.  Where you put your time sends signals to those around you, and those that report to you.  Then, once you've anchored time in your calendar for important but perhaps not urgent tasks like innovation, you can then fill in the calendar with urgent but less important activities.  You simply won't find time to innovate - you have to set aside time to innovate.

Once you've set aside time to innovate, what should you do with that time?  Think expansively.  Identify and track trends.  Think about the future - five, seven, ten years in advance.  Anticipate market and environmental changes.  Draft a white paper that defines where you believe the market is going, and how to get there first.  Get out and interact with customers or potential customers.  Look for unarticulated or unmet needs you can satisfy.  Rethink your customer's experience.  Network with people in your industry and adjacent to your industry.  Exchange ideas with people on your team, or in other organizations. 

Sounds like fun, but doesn't look like work, is the complaint that's rattling around in your head.  And you are probably right.  This doesn't look like the work that gets done in your business, simply because everyone is focused on the here and now, the further and later is not being investigated, and can't be investigated or understood using the tools that look like work in most firms.

This has a cascading effect.  Since the effort involved in understanding innovation opportunities doesn't look like work, we find other urgent but less important things to fill our day.  Then, we are left with the conundrum that while innovation is important, we can't "find" time to innovate.  It's a vicious cycle, eventually leading to the failure to create new products and services, or to miss new market opportunities.  Then, what was urgent becomes even more urgent, and even less attention is paid to innovation.  Eventually everyone is working on next quarter's efficiency savings and no one is taking time to innovate.

This isn't a question about "finding" time to innovate - it's a challenge to balance near term demands of the business with strategic vision about the future of the business.  You can't make time, and it's our most valuable commodity.  You can strategically select where you spend your time, and by doing so send signals to others.  You make time to innovate by placing that time on your calendar before allowing the calendar to fill with other tasks and other work.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:36 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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