Can side projects lead to innovation?
Some of innovation's biggest players have set aside time for their employees to think and explore with the aim of making their companies better. This concept is now used in classrooms from elementary school through university and college to help expand students' minds. Can the same benefits apply to smaller companies that allow their employees to delve into the world of innovation or encourage their workers to take on "passion projects"?
If there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day for the regular tasks to be completed, it probably isn't the right time to introduce this type of exercise. Don't let the idea go completely though, you can implement parts of the concept at team meetings.
- Have everyone bring one fresh idea (no matter how small) to the table and start discussions.
- Listen to all ideas… the original idea may not be "the one", but it could definitely be the spark that starts a wave of ideas.
- Hold a company-wide brainstorming session where all new ideas are brought to the table.
- Offer a safe space for ideas to be shared, like an idea lab or a think space. Within this space, you might want to offer your employees tools that they aren't usually able to access.
This type of creative thinking may allow your employees the freedom to use their minds in a different way than in their usual roles require and can increase morale in the process.
Depending on the stage of business you are in, you may find that the cost of carving out time for your employees to think about innovation is far too expensive. Your ability to afford this time may also depend on the industry you are in. If you are in a sector that needs to innovate to keep up with the competition, you may find that setting aside time for your employees to develop new ideas is simply part of the cost of doing business. If this is the case, you might assign the time to your employees on a rotational basis so that you are not pulling everyone off of their assigned tasks all at once.
What happens to ideas and concepts that evolve from these side projects? There needs to be a clear definition of what/when ideas are owned by the company vs. owned by the individual who offered the initial idea. Will the ideas that come forth at an idea lab or at a brainstorming session be owned by the company, while ideas that are developed as part of the employees' "passion project" be owned by them, even when developed on company property? Legal documents may have to be drawn up to ensure ownership is clearly defined.
Make sure you have a good idea of what people are working on and check in on their progress. Although you are encouraging free-thinking, as the business owner you will want to ensure that there is an end goal to your employees' projects that falls in line with your businesses' goals and priorities.