Time to Innovate

This article was first published on the Lean Startup Co. blog.

Perhaps the most underutilized assets in most companies are the ideas in their employees’ heads.

It makes sense that the people spending most of their day working on products or with customers are bombarded with insights on new and better ways to serve those customers. But in too many companies, employees are not empowered to do anything with their ideas. Instead, decisions on what ideas to explore are made by senior leaders. But these senior leaders don’t have the same proximity to insights because they spend most of their working day meeting with other senior leaders. We call this the Insight-Decision Divide.

Bridging the Insight-Decision Divide requires companies to develop a culture of innovation where every employee is empowered to work on their own ideas. Foundational to empowering employees is giving them time to innovate. If employees’ time is fully subscribed to their day jobs, they won’t have time to explore their insights. Or even worse, an employee may get in trouble with her manager after being caught working on something other than her assigned work.

Many innovative companies carve out time for employees to work on their own projects (Google’s and Atlassian’s 20% Time, Intuit’s Unstructured Time). Other companies schedule regular hackathons where employees get a fixed amount of time to set aside their day jobs to work on their own ideas.

Here are some stories of product innovations that resulted from companies empowering employees to work on their own ideas:

The Facebook Like Button

You may “like" it now, but this Facebook button was a cursed project from the start. Hackathons were always a part of the Facebook culture. So it wasn't surprising when engineers Andrew Bosworth, Justin Rosenstein, Leah Pearlman,  Ezra Callahan, and Akhil Wable, hacked together something beyond cool. On July 17th, 2007 they built an "awesome" button, a way for facebook users to express immediate delight with a post.

The experiment generated a buzz within Facebook. The feed team expressed interest. They thought the awesome button might improve feed rankings. The advertising team was excited that perhaps the capability would increase click throughs.

Finally it was time to launch and the team presented to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The review was a disaster. The feature -- now renamed  the "like" button -- faced grave concerns. Would the like button reduce comments? Would the activity feed become less effective? Time passed and the team failed more Zuckerberg reviews.

But they didn’t give up. The team persisted and tested more. Soon the team proved that the like button increased the number of comments. The activity feed, in combination with the likes, motivated more comments for a post. With this new data in hand, the like button rolled out to all Facebook users.

The Sony Playstation

Sony was a serious company. Gaming machines were for non-serious companies. At least this was what Ken Kutaragi's bosses thought.

Ken was a young Sony engineer who spent hours tinkering with his daughter's early Nintendo “Famicom" machine. He strove to make the machine more powerful and user-friendly. Ken's work became one of the most valuable brands in the world, the Sony Playstation.

But the path to success was a bumpy one. Some of Ken's managers were convinced working on a game system would be a complete waste of time. Some senior leaders interested in Ken's work emerged, and his prototype game system gained support.  Sony funded the project, the PlayStation went to market and became the enormous success we know (and play) today.

ELIXIR Guitar Strings

W.L. Gore employee Dave Myers knew an opportunity when he saw it. In fact, Dave saw many opportunities. The first was the 10% "dabble time" that W.L. Gore gave to each employee to explore new ideas. The second opportunity was that Dave understood the company's miraculous ePTFE coating - a synthetic, non-stick coating traditionally used for cookware. Finally, Dave, a guitarist, knew how uncomfortable and fragile guitar strings could be.

Dave hypothesized that guitar strings coated with ePTFE would be more comfortable to play. But he was wrong. The coated strings weren't much more comfortable to play. It turned out the coating did produce a large, unexpected, benefit. The coated strings held their tone longer than any other guitar strings.

Guitarists voted with their wallets. Dave's guitar strings, branded ELIXIR strings, are the #1 best selling acoustic guitar string.

So you might work in a company where the prevailing wisdom is that you’re too busy and can’t afford to give employees time to innovate. The question you should really be asking yourself is, with all your underutilized assets, i.e. great employee ideas, can you really afford to not give employees time to innovate?

In our forthcoming book, Jeff Zias and I are writing about how companies can drive growth by empowering employees to work on their own ideas.