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Inklings Blog

How Unofficial Activity Drives Innovation: Lessons from Google, 3M and Pitney Bowes

September 21, 2011 admin

Something about September makes me yearn for a new side project to tackle. I chalk it up to a combination of back-to-school withdrawal, the crisp fall air and my general inclination towards multitasking. I read a Wall Street Journal article about a new concept the author dubbed “work-work balance,” juggling your main work duties with more experimental side projects. The concept is intriguing and many of the most innovative companies already encourage employees to take time for “unofficial” activity to spur creative thinking. InkHouse is no different and making space for creativity is something we all strive for on a daily basis.

The WSJ article specifically points to innovative companies like Google and 3M, which allow their employees set time to work on creative, company-related ideas. Fostering innovation is not the only goal: these companies also want to keep employees engaged and challenged by providing opportunities for side projects distinct from daily work tasks. According to a Gallup Management Journal study, engaged employees are more profitable, create stronger customer relationships, stay longer with their company and are more likely to contribute to future innovation.

Google’s Gmail, Earth and News all came from Google’s policy of letting engineers use 20 percent of their time for company-related projects of their choosing. Not all of these ideas take off (remember Google Buzz?), but as someone who relies on Gmail and Google News in my everyday life, I’m happy to endure a few duds to reap the rewards of the winners. Failure is expected during these trials and embraced as a learning experience.

3M has employed its famed creative time off rule for more than 60 years, encouraging all staff (not just the engineers) to devote 15 percent of their work time to pursue ideas they discovered through the usual course of work but didn’t have time to follow up on. The famous Post-It Note was invented during one employee’s 15 percent time back in 1974. Other ideas now on the market with roots in 15 percent time include clear bandages and painter’s tape that sticks to wall edges. It’s no doubt that companies with high levels of inherent creative competitiveness have the most successful employee-driven innovation programs. One of 3M’s most beloved company events has employees present poster boards of their 15 percent time projects to fellow employees – science fair style – and receive feedback and suggestions.

In 2009, Pitney Bowes launched IdeaNet, an internal web community built around “idea challenges” that enables employees to generate and shape ideas. Since launch, 4,000 ideas have been submitted and unit leaders have adopted 900 ideas for implementation. The payoff? $8 million in revenue for Pitney Bowes. Pretty impressive, especially given that, on average, ideas from U.S. employees are implemented only once every six years.

Here at InkHouse, we work with innovative companies at various stages – from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies. It’s important to understand each client’s culture and what makes them innovators in their respective fields. Disruptive products and ground-breaking technologies make for great product stories, but don’t forget to look behind the scenes to see where the idea originated. Stories of employee-driven innovation in action can be equally powerful and are happening right now.

Are you part of an idea-driven workforce? Share your side project and “unofficial time” stories here. After all, collaboration drives innovation.

Tags: Public Relations, Technology, Google

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