Just as most plants don’t grow in an arid space but flourish in a fertile environment, if you want to build a culture of innovation, you must create the right environment for it.
You don’t need special rooms with bean bags and coloured walls to inspire creativity. But you must make innovation part of your regular environment – and a big part of that is giving them time for innovation:
- Allocate team time: My colleague and innovation expert Nils Vesk recommends that at your weekly team meeting, you ask team members to share something interesting, innovative or inspiring they found outside work in the past week.
- Allocate private time: Google became famous for allowing their engineers to use 20% of their time to work on their private projects, completely independent of their main work. This led to innovations like Google Maps, Google News, and Gmail. Even if you don’t make this a formal rule (and even Google has moved away from that now), give people time to work on their own projects.
- Find out what else they like: Ask your team members what lights them up, especially outside work. You never know what might spark great ideas, especially if you can find overlap between these interests and their work.
- Allocate personal time: Take this a step further and give them time to work on community projects or other non-work-related activities (even personal interests). This not only motivates them and helps the community; it also gives their brain “free time” that can help their creativity and innovation.
- Create friendly competition: Instant Offices, a company that brokers serviced offices, challenges employees to work in random teams to develop and present ideas in a format like the reality television series Dragon’s Den (or Shark Tank) .
- Make it easy for them to speak up: Finally, make it easy for them to share their ideas. One way is to allocate time in team meetings (as noted above), but don’t make that the only opportunity. You could have, for example, an online “suggestion box”. British Airways does this for their employees, and was rewarded with one idea (descaling toilet pipes on its planes) that saves £600,000 a year .
Some leaders see these activities as a waste of time, because they take time away from the core business. But they are essential for innovation.
Author Ori Baufmann, in his book The Chaos Imperative, calls this “creating white space”. Think of this as like the margins in a book, which surround the text but don’t have any information in them. However, margins play an important role: They give the eyes rest, keep the text away from the paper’s edge, and provide space for scribbled notes.
In the same way, the “white space” in your workplace is the time away from core project activities, so team members have freedom and flexibility to experiment, try new things, discuss new ideas, and make mistakes without facing penalty.
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