Innovation Slack: How to Create Space to Support Creativity

In order to organizations to facilitate innovation, it needs to provide the time for people to work on innovation, both directly and indirectly.

“pencils on blue table” by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

“There are many difficulties in corporate entrepreneurship, but being able to leverage the company’s resources and structure is a huge plus.” — an Innovation Leader

We had just wrapped up the final mentoring meeting with a corporate startup team who had succeeded in launching their product, generating sales, and validating their business model hypotheses; now all that was left was the management pitch. And the whole process was completed with less than a 10,000 TL budget (roughly $1,500.00).

The team was happy and relieved; so was the innovation leader in charge of the program. Launching a similar business as a startup may have been faster, but it definitely would have been more expensive, perhaps prohibitively so. This was a win.

On paper, launching startups inside corporations make sense, perhaps even more so than launching startups externally, especially across the Horizon 1 & 2 spectrum. All the resources are available and the networks in place to make the business model work. Startups would kill for even 10% of opportunities available freely inside of corporations. But, in reality, things never work out quite like we expect them to.


No Slack in the System

Having worked with dozens of companies over the past three years, designing and running their corporate entrepreneurship programs, I’ve come across the bevy of similar complaints and roadblocks that thwart innovation efforts:

  • “The other departments are not supporting us…”
  • “No one is reply to our emails…”
  • “That manager is blocking our progress…”

But It Really Comes Down to Time.

It is the classic conflict of today vs. tomorrow, effectiveness vs. innovation. And the profits of today, driven by the pursuit of more and more effectiveness and efficiency generally wins out.

In the discussion of time/slack for innovation, we generally consider only the innovation teams themselves, i.e. giving them the space to be creativity and develop their ideas. MIT Sloan has quantified the exact benefits of allocating such slack to employees in their article “If You Cut Employees Slack, Will They Innovate?” — (a highly suggested read).

I’ve taken a quick survey of the corporate entrepreneurship programs that I’ve helped run, and unfortunately only one company allotted significant work hours, i.e. 1 day a week, for innovation teams to work specifically on their innovation projects. You can’t expect game-changing new businesses to emerge consistently from employee’s extra hours they put in on the evenings and weekends in addition to their normal jobs. PEOPLE WILL BURN OUT. It’s not worth it.

But this element of slack not only applies to innovation teams but also to the people throughout the organization supporting them. Innovation teams and leaders constantly complain about how slow the legal department is in preparing new contracts for small innovation projects, or how purchasing doesn’t really take their minuscule requests seriously. Even trying to get a meeting with finance department can take weeks. But, in actuality, they are not trying to hinder innovation explicitly, they simply don’t have the time.

In our pursuit of effectiveness, we expect every employee to be working at their full capacity, which doesn’t leave the brain space or time to consider other things, especially work that is outside the scope of their normal job.

Slack is NOT just sitting around thinking up the next big idea. Slack is about having the space to do the work that innovation requires, whether that be preparing a contract, providing mentoring, sitting in on a meeting, calling up potential vendors, prioritizing a project in the change log, or helping with financial estimates.

Everyone needs a bit of innovation slack.

Although everyone in the organization may not directly be involved in coming up with and pushing forward a new business idea, everyone has a role to play in helping fertilize and realize that idea. The power of corporate entrepreneurship only shines through when you can actually leverage the corporate expertise and existing resources we see so clearly on paper. That will come out via innovation slack.

“person holding pink sticky note” by David Travis on Unsplash

1 Hour a Day

For corporations aiming to be truly ambidextrous in their approach, try this suggestion: everyone across the organization should be given 1 hour a day as part of their normal work hours to work on innovation.

That one hour can be used per day; or collected and discharged per week, i.e. 5 hours of dedicated time on a Friday. Or even gathered up on a monthly basis, allowing teams to run a 3 day design sprint once a month.

And, obviously, this doesn’t only apply to innovation teams, but everyone in the organization. Meaning the legal department, the sales team, IT and Finance, and even HR should be setting aside one hour a day to either work on or support innovation in their professional capacity.

Ambidextrous refers to organizations that can execute on today’s business model while innovating toward tomorrow’s business model. And although many organizations are drawn to the concept of ambidexterity, in practice, most are still only proficient with today’s hand. One hour a day can change that.

  • ONE HOUR A DAY shows that an organization is serious about the pursuit of tomorrow, showing they are willing to sacrifice a little bit of effectiveness today for a bit more creativity tomorrow.
  • ONE HOUR A DAY means employees are empowered to both think of ideas and pursue them, without losing their focus on doing their current jobs better as well.
  • ONE HOUR A DAY means innovation projects become a priority across the board, building a culture and mindset that actually moves innovation forward rather than stifling it in the busyness of the modern workplace.

Innovation won’t be regulated to the back of the line anymore. Rather innovation teams will know that their needs will receive attention from support departments, from managers, from sales people on a metered basis, i.e. one hour a day. Contracts will get prepared, small purchases will be completed, financial estimates will be done, idea testing will move forward. The rate of innovation has just been multiplied 50x.

Try one hour a day… and see what happens.

Make Innovation Work

Core Strateji is a strategy consulting firm that specializes in supporting leading companies to transform into ambidextrous organizations. Are you ready to move your innovation activities forward?

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