Why You Should Take Your Innovation Off-Site
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
If your company is not innovating in spite your best efforts, consider taking the entire innovation process off-site. Not just the idea generation bit, but the entire process. I believe it will encourage innovation while reducing unnecessary risk. Let me explain.
The typical office in a typical organisation is conducive neither to creativity nor innovation. I have never, ever met a person who has told me, "I get my best ideas sitting at my desk at work."
This is why the most effective anticonventional thinking (ACT) sessions and other creative thinking actions are held off-site. When you get people out of their offices, away from meeting rooms and off their phones, they can get really, really creative in ways they never get when they are at their desks or in a dreary meeting room.
Off-Site Ideas Are Not Enough
Unfortunately, having great ideas is not enough. What all too often happens is that in the relaxed environment of an off-site ideation session, one or more big, bold, exciting ideas are generated and developed. Everyone is really excited about taking their ideas back to the office and getting to work on them.
However, when they actually do return their dreary desks, thousands of waiting emails and hours of voicemails, those ideas no longer seem big and bold, but rather big and intimidating. Even if, by some miracle, participants persevere with their vision, one risk-averse committee or another will probably kill it before anyone does anything crazy, like actually implement the idea.
Why Not Take the Entire Process Off-Site?
This raises an intriguing question: if ideation works so well when taken off-site, why not take the entire innovation process off-site? Evidence suggests it would work very well.
In fact, this often happens when an employee with an entrepreneurial mind finds her creative ideas stifled when she tries to develop them. She soon realises that the only way one of her ideas will ever be realised is if she implements it herself. Since she can not do this at work, she leaves the company − sometimes taking a few of her brightest colleagues with her − and sets up her own business to exploit her idea. This is how Salesforce.com came to be.
Of course, she sometimes fails. But sometimes she is phenomenally successful with an idea she initially wanted to give her employer.
Senior management at a handful of big, bureaucratic giants have realised that real innovation will not happen in their companies. So they have set up Skunkworks which are essentially business units given a budget and the freedom to experiment with ideas outside the corporate bureaucracy. Such units can not only devise ideas, but they can develop them and even implement them. Ideas that succeed are adopted by the parent organisation. Companies like Lockheed Martin, where the term was first coined, and Xerox, have had great success with projects that originated in their Skunkworks.
Skunkworks are usually not expected to be profitable and are given minimal oversight − so that the team has freedom to think and act. This frees them from the bureaucratic oversight and opportunity-blind committees that would normally kill their ideas.
The problem with entrepreneurs, of course, is that they run off and set up their own companies, so your company fails to benefit from their efforts. The problem with Skunkworks is that it is a long term business unit usually focused on product rather than process. Not all organisations are able to or want to support a Skunkworks indefinitely. Others want proof of concept before setting up something this nature.
So, why not create something between an off-site ACT session, a fleeing entrepreneur and a full blown skunkworks? Let's call it an "Off-Site Innovation Happening".
Off-Site Innovation Happening
A off-site innovation happening would bring together a diverse group of people comprising creative thinkers, problem-solvers, thinkers and doers. It would include experts and novices. The team would also be given a budget and a time frame.
The first step would be an ACT session to develop a creative vision and an initial action plan. But instead of taking that action plan back to the office where it will be stifled by bureaucracy, the team itself develops and implements the creative vision.
Once the vision is developed, tested and proven to whatever extent necessary, it can be reabsorbed by the organisation whose resources would allow the vision to be scaled up and implemented on a wider level. Ideally, members of the Off-Site Innovation Happening team would be given responsible positions related to the implementation of their vision.
Of course, if the vision does not work out, the team prepares a report on why it did not work, compiles lessons learned and goes back to their desks − at least until they are again called upon to participate in an Off-Site Innovative Happening.
The advantages to this approach is that it allows a creative team to prosper and realise ideas rather than just dream them up; it allows the team to bypass bureaucratic hurdles that typically kill ideas; and it confines risk. As a result, even the most bureaucratic companies can safely do innovative things.
Moreover, if the first Off-Site Innovation Happening succeeds, you can set up more and innovate more.
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