All organizations have standard funding mechanisms within their legacy structure to support change and proposed new work. The challenge is that when business units are running at full speed, often utilizing the human resource at 100%+, it’s very difficult for interesting ideas that are not directly related to the specific objectives of that business unit to evolve beyond a creative impulse. If I have a great idea that could help our company, but it’s not in my current set of responsibilities, organizational pressures to meet standing objectives are likely to cause a response from my boss similar to “Great idea, but maybe next quarter. Right now I need you on project Zindle.” To be Zen for a moment: The next quarter will never arrive; there is only now.
Smart organizations find a way to build a “do it now” pathway for the passionately inspired. This is where the oft-described “spend 15% of your time to pursue your own passion” solution shows up. Unfortunately, when investigating this in benchmarking studies, we have seen few actual instances of this policy surviving any length of time. Day-to-day responsibilities, pressure for delivery on short-term objectives, and finance-driven pressures to lean out the human resource steadily undermine the good intention of structuring discretionary time. Recent interviews with employees at 3M, one of the most often quoted examples of this policy working, have led us to understand just how hard it is to keep this kind of thing alive. The 3M “15% story” is better told as one of steady aspiration since 1948, rather than one of steady implementation. Success waxes and wanes. Fortunately for 3M, the aspiration has remained on the books so can be energized non-punitively by forward thinking leaders. We’ll speak more about this as we discuss the “Exploration” strategy area.
Here are a few real-world examples:
After some hard learning that came from instituting an “Idea Management Program” (see Technology strategy area above), Ericsson, speaking through an article in Fast Company, described the following: “Over 300 Electronic IdeaBoxes set up by employees have, to date, cumulated more than 16,000 ideas and comments from over 10,000 users.” One can imagine the frustration of managing and responding to so many ideas, let alone implementing all of them. As an individual, you’d feel the frustration of submitting your great thinking amid the cacophony of unfettered ideation. Wisely, Ericsson utilizes an internal venture capital system to give hope of life to all of that great thinking.
At Adobe, they developed an interesting system for experimentation. As described by an employee at Adobe in February of 2013:
“We have a program called the KickStart Innovation Workshop that offers a uniquely powerful experience that can change individuals and careers. Employees are given a red box. Inside is everything they need to become an Adobe Innovator, including some seed money on a pre-paid credit card with a step-by-step process to originate an innovative new concept and then use that money to validate that concept with customers. No proposal. No committees. No approval. Just do it.
What’s more, some of Adobe’s top innovators personally coach participants on their journey through the six levels of this lean enterprise innovation process. This is not an exercise. It is not practice. Participants do it for real, including validating with actual customers, generating real-world data proving their concepts and presenting results to Adobe senior executives for further funding. [Those executives sometimes] carve off skunkworks groups to tackle new opportunities that might be threatening to existing business units, or that will never get enough attention from them.”
At Rite-Solutions, a systems and software development firm, the architecture of participation is both businesslike and playful. Fifty-five stocks are listed on the company’s internal market, which is called Mutual Fun. Each stock comes with a detailed description — called an “expect-us”, as opposed to a prospectus — and begins trading at a price of $10. Every employee gets $10,000 in “opinion money” to allocate among the offerings, and employees signal their enthusiasm by investing in a stock and, better yet, volunteering to work on the project. Volunteers share in the proceeds, in the form of real money, if the stock becomes a product or delivers savings.