Innovation Happens

Have you ever wondered how and when innovation happens? Can managers demand it? Can we put it in our project plans? Can we just reprioritize it when we get too busy? Although these questions seem rhetorical, each one causes us to ask how and when innovation happens. Is innovation, much like creativity, neither intentional or something we can turn on and off? Does it just happen?

There’s no one answer to these questions, but there are patterns we can observe from successful innovation.

Take the opportunity to watch this TED talk by Tim Berners-Lee on The Next Web. In this talk Tim tells the story of how he created what we now know as the World Wide Web. In March of 1989, while a software engineer at CERN, Tim handed Information Management: A Proposal to his supervisor Mark Sendall. Sendall wrote “vague, but exciting” on the paper, put it in his drawer and nothing happened. Eighteen months later Sendall told Tim he could “do it on the side as a sort of a play project.” Some twenty years later we know the Web not only as an essential global information and business resource, but also a part of the critical infrastructure on which our national security depends.

This is an interesting enough anecdote, but there’s a pattern. During the fall of 1992 at the National Center for Supercomputing (NCSA) Marc Andressen and Eric Bina had enough time available to start a side project based on Tim’s work at CERN. The project soon became X Mosaic, the world’s first widely available graphical web browser. Within a few years the Mosaic team formed Netscape Communications Corporation which a few years later was acquired by America On Line (AOL) for about $4 billion.

Today, Google recognizes this pattern in its operations plan and it calls the pattern 20-percent time. Engineers are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time working on projects of their own choosing. Google does not enforce 20 percent time and engineers work on behalf of Google during that time. 20 percent time is so successful that about half of Google’s new product launches originate from what engineers create during their 20-percent time.

There’s solid evidence that innovation happens when employees have time and opportunity to investigate projects beyond their core duties. That does not mean that managers have lost control, or that employees are not working on behalf of the organization. Not all organizations recognize 20 percent time in their ops plan, but all organizations can create an environment that encourages how and when innovation happens.