Inno­vation O'Clock

How Time, Encouragement, and Trust Can Foster Innovation

What would you do if you had some time each week, say four hours, or even eight, to explore your ideas? Perhaps you would discover other aspects of your field. Maybe you would launch your own venture within the company like the 3M employee who came-up with the post-it note or the Google employee who created the company‘s email service, Gmail.

Some organizations are providing just that opportunity, harnessing employee innovation not with the addition of an activity or practice, but with the opposite: time.

Industry leaders like Google, 3M, and Hewlett Packard have famously offered employees opportunities to think about projects outside of their regular duties. The idea is that with a little time, employees can practice curiosity and be on the road to new innovations.

Why is this chance to explore so important? Findings from our State of Curiosity report show that this opportunity is not just about giving employees time to think, but it is about what that time represents. When employers allocate time for ideation, it creates freedom in the workplace, encourages exploration (without fear of failure), and establishes trust.

Creating Freedom

With time comes a sense of freedom. Amy Whitaker, the author of Art Thinking, has advocated for creative thought in the workplace. With an MBA from Yale and an MFA in painting from the Slade School of Fine Art, Whitaker has paired the benefits of business and art in the hopes that “people can feel freedom to engage with their creative selves even in extremely structured environments.”

And this freedom is largely absent in most workplaces today. The Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany State of Curiosity Report found that only 28% of employers provide employees with time to explore new ideas.

Whitaker believes that to make creativity happen in the workplace, we simply need to “make space for curiosity.” She argues that “curiosity is like a plant that needs sunlight to grow. Setting aside time is like removing the tree cover.” (Amy Whitaker, 2017)

Creating time for freedom of thought is the first step in encouraging curiosity; however, it can do more than provide a chance for exploration – it can also signal to employees that curiosity is a valuable part of an employee’s work life.

   A hand holding an ice cream cone filled with a lightbulb    A hand holding an ice cream cone filled with a lightbulb

Allowing for Failure

For employees to think liberally (often cited as a critical first step towards innovation) they need to know they can share ideas without the fear of failure.

Tim Brown, CEO of global design company, IDEO, is another advocate for allowing innovation without barriers. In an interview with Yale Insights, Brown says “if people get penalized for failure, particularly the kind of failure that's most useful which is where you learn a lot, then they're not going to do it, in which case you're not going to get any innovation.”

Accepting that ideas may fail and still being willing to try them is key to distress tolerance, one of our four dimensions of curiosity. Fear of failure prevents employees from having a meaningful curiosity practice. For example, even if employees are inquisitive about something, fear can prevent them from taking action.

There are companies that recognize the importance of failure and even embrace it. 3M gives the example of a team that wanted to create new solutions for the automotive industry. After much experimentation, they invented a heat-repelling cover to protect car finishes from getting damaged by welding sparks. When they attempted to bring their new innovation to market, they found that automotive workers were not willing to pay extra for the cover because layering blankets over a vehicle could offer the same protection at no cost. Ultimately, their solution was unsuccessful in the marketplace; however, 3M still celebrated the team’s effort because the process represented a learning opportunity for the company. 

By valuing the process, employees can make suggestions more freely. Whitaker emphasizes that it is important to “set aside time without expectation or outcomes” (Amy Whitaker, 2017). She says that having a “lighthouse question” to guide you to a solution is important, but it is also important to be curious without constraints.

Creating Trust

By simply creating opportunities for exploration, employers can enhance the trust between them and their employees.

Brown says that the key is “an ability to create spaces where trust can happen. Where risks can get taken.” He continues by saying that we tend to “mitigate and design out as much risk as we can, but if you want to innovate, you have to take risks. And to take risks you have to have some level of trust within the organization.”

And what says, “I trust you” more than an employer providing employees a chance to investigate all the possibilities?

Dr. Jeffrey Loewenstein, Professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's College of Business says, “it’s not just an invitation for each individual to explore, but it allows each individual the time to look around and see what others are coming up with, it allows for the time for teams to develop and emerge around projects, to get excited about something, and work together.”

By creating these safe environments, employees can be inquisitive about things beyond their daily duties. Not only can they discover other aspects of the business to see gaps, but they can have the time to fill those gaps with their new innovations.

So, with a little room to think, who knows what we’d discover next?

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