Too close! Getting in my personal space is killing your corporate innovation

Back in the very early 2000’s when I was studying multimedia design (a term so archaic that reading it here is quite possibly the first time you’ve heard it) I learnt an incredibly valuable lesson about innovation. In a group assignment we were asked to design a new system or product and were pretty much given free rein to decide our user and context. And in true first-year university student tradition we didn’t think once about the user or the context but just went straight into thinking about a cool use for a new technology.

We decided to look at the Eye-Toy, a newly released device for the PlayStation 2 that was essentially a digital camera with gesture recognition. This was the Neanderthal man to the Homo sapiens that is Nintendo’s Wii. We designed a Yoga class using the Eye-Toy that would take users through a guided yoga session and the Eye-Toy would recognize the form and effectiveness of the user and support them to improve performance over time. This was a pretty decent idea for a young group of students and predated by at least three years the release of a somewhat similar product by Sony and Nike called Kinetic.

Did we think that we could commercialize this product? Sure, probably. We didn’t have the technical know-how but we were somewhat-techy design students and it felt like all technology was “new” and most things were possible. Did we think for one second about actually doing it? Not once.

The missing ingredient was time.

While the perceived ability of four students to influence and connect globally with users was totally different than it is today with phones, products and apps, the real missing ingredient was time. We had none. We were students and it just was not going to be possible to create this product or follow this idea through AND still be able to complete a degree and keep the parental’s happy. Sidebar: I was a DJ and was already up all night so I really, really didn’t have the time.

While the DJ’ing is long gone the lesson about time is as true today as it has ever been and it’s a lesson many organizations would do well to remember as they approach innovation. Large organizations are filling in the ever dwindling daily space and mindshare of their employees with projects, communications and other minutia that they hope will transform the way that companies innovate. I’d say these organizations can look forward to being the next Eye-Toy — a cultural relic in less than a decade. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Give employees time:

We know from research into the intrinsic motivations of people that autonomy and the ability to create one’s own future is a deep human drive within all of us. This means that if we give people the choice they will chose to do and create the things that build a better, more deeply connected future for themselves. In a work context, this is giving employees the ability to do things that they are passionate about. There is simply no business challenge that cannot be overcome with a little bit of time and a team who are passionate about making the change a reality. They just need time.

Give them space:

I’m sure we have all seen corporate innovation programs or ideation competitions where people submit ideas and then the designated Innovation god pontificates on who has won the right to go forth and develop these ideas with head office’s blessings. This is crazy. Ideas have a currency equal to n minus infinity when compared to a tested prototype. There is just no way that ideas should be a decision point in corporate innovation because a tested prototype can take a seemingly average idea and infuse it with a user insight that sends it into the stratosphere. Give people and teams the time and space to invest in seeing their ideas through and infuse feedback and insight from the user rather than being quick to judge what might work.

Give them a place:

Where do people in your organization go to be creative? This question is at the heart of whether a culture of innovation is possible. A true culture of innovation allows participatory design, collaboration and randomness to come together to create magic. If there is no place or platform or location where people can go to be creative then the likelihood that people will take up the lead under their own steam is very unlikely. Idea repositories are ok but are simply not enough. Your organization or team needs the time, the space and a sandbox in which to meet, play, test and create as a gateway to cultivating innovations.

I’d still love to be a pro surfer or professional DJ but I just don’t have the time (or frankly the skill!). If you’re not thinking about whether your people have time to cultivate ideas they are passionate about, the space they have to make these ideas tangible, and the place where people can go to connect and create then it’s very unlikely a culture of innovation is going to be possible.

Whatever your objectives are for corporate innovation they need to start with creating an environment for people to make it theirs. It’s time to get out of your employees personal space, let them breathe, and start paying more attention to the clock — but only so you can use it to give people some more time.