OPINION16 October 2012

Real innovation is a waste of time


Companies need to innovate to succeed. But successful innovation takes time to get right, says Surinder Siama, founder of Mngful.com.

Real innovation is a waste of time – that’s not a very forward-thinking thing to say. Care to explain yourself?
Earlier this year John Chambers, the head of tech giant Cisco, decided to compare the latest Fortune 500 list with the list from 1995, the year he became CEO. He was stunned. He noticed that in less than a generation 87% of the companies had fallen out of the list.

Such is the challenge of maintaining market leadership. Such is the need for constant innovation to maintain relevance and potency. “Companies that don’t reinvent themselves will be left behind,” said Chambers.

I thought you said innovation was a waste of time.
I think you misunderstand me. We all know that innovation is important. And most organisations say they innovate. But the 87% figure suggests they’re probably not doing it effectively.

One thing we know about innovation is that you can’t do it without failing along the way. It’s not possible. It’s never happened. And yet organisations act as though you can stamp out failure without also neutering innovation.

We all hate failure, not only because it hurts egos but also because it seems to waste time. But time wasted in the short term may be more than made up by innovations that are meaningful.

That’s why I’m calling for us all to waste a bit more time. Because wasting time on seemingly fruitless endeavours leads to greater creativity Einstein put it best when he said: “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

I get what you’re saying, but I can’t see the shareholders liking that idea very much.
There is a stigma attached to the idea of wasting time, but I think this is starting to change. In Silicon Valley it’s practically a badge of honour.

Google’s mastered time-wasting, although I’m sure they wouldn’t characterise it that way. It’s the fastest growing company in history – and barely a teenager – and yet it’s one of the most valuable in the world. It famously gives employees ‘20% time’ to work on any new ideas that take their fancy. This has given birth to Google News and many other products.

Elsewhere, a couple of research scientists from the University of Manchester won
a Nobel prize for advances in discovering graphene. The thing is, this wasn’t their day-job. They were just playing with stuff they were curious about. It was a hobby.

HR says hobbies are important for work-life balance, but I don’t know if they’d agree that people should take their hobbies to work with them.
Daniel Pink, author of Drive, might well argue that they should. He identifies three pillars of employee motivation: mastery, autonomy and purpose. In Pink’s model, 20% time delivers on both autonomy and purpose – and possibly mastery too if the idea leads to an enduring innovation.

So you want organisations to try this 20% time idea?
Eventually, maybe. But I reckon we ought to be less ambitious and start with 5% time.

Everyone gets to spend one day a month working on ideas they’re passionate about. Ideas that help end-users, be they internal or external. People can work by themselves or in teams.

I know of some folks in an ad agency who created an elegant solution to the problem of people filing their timesheets late. They connected a beer fridge to a web-based timesheet system using open-source electronics.

Every Friday, the fridge would automatically unlock but only once all timesheets had been completed. Anyone delaying the unlock would be cajoled through peer pressure rather than the usual stern email from accounting.

Could this work for market research agencies?
I think so, yes. But I appreciate that with low margins and the poor economic climate, encouraging employees to waste time might feel a bit weird. But try it. I recently took part in a hackathon and it was the most creative I’ve felt in a long while. And we won second place.


9 years ago

I really enjoyed reading your article. It's given me a new outlook on innovation and creativity. So it is essential for companies to invest in R&D now if they wish to stay ahead. I have a debate to write, arguing for and against why creativity and innovation cannot be developed in an organisation. Do you think they are incompatible? Or just needs a strong strategy implemented to turn them into reality. What is your opinion? Thanks

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9 years ago

Dear Aisha, there is a great book Adapt by Nick Hartford & also Mavericks at Work that covers how creativity and innovation can be developed within corporations that would help with your needs.

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