Innovative Environment: How do I make time for new ideas?

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.

The most commonly cited barrier to innovation is lack of time. Everyone knows it, but few have the answer on how to carve out that time. One rather trite suggestion I read was ‘Regularly review employees’ workload and ensure they have enough time to innovate’ which doesn’t really cut it. So how do you make time for new ideas? Many will have heard about 3M (of Post-it fame) and Google’s 20% time. Employees have one day a week to work on ideas of their own. Charities, many of which survive on project funding, cannot afford to let their entire staff develop ideas one day a week, however much they may want and need to. Whilst time may be infinite, there is only so much of it in any given day. We all know that however efficient we are, the work of a charity is never done. But that may be the crux of the problem – we are all be so busy doing what we do; we are not thinking about what to stop doing.

I don’t have all the answers but I have four suggestions:

Abandon what does not work Peter Drucker calls it organised abandonment: regularly review all that you do and agree to abandon what does not work.  You could ask yourself

  • Is it on mission?
  • Is it having an impact? Perhaps consider how many people are benefiting per day spent.
  • Will it still be valuable work in a year?

If the answer to any of these is ‘No’,  plan to drop the work so that you can make way for something new and better.  Think of Swindon Council who were spending 100% of their road safety budget on speed cameras and yet road fatalites increased.  They ditched the cameras and used the money to adopt some new, more effectiive approaches.

Make it easy for people to connect Structure your environment so that staff across teams can easily and frequently interact informally – over a long table at lunch, in quiet corners over coffee.  Structure the organisation similarly avoiding an overemphasis on hierarchy – easier said than done I know.

Adopt habits of reflection Doing things habitually takes very little extra time. One key habit worth developing is a habit of active and effective reflection on what you do so that you learn from it; understand what does not work and why; get new ideas on how to do things better; and act upon them.  This could be as simple as at the end of every meeting scoring it and saying why you have chosen that rating. Reflective teams are known to be more effective teams.

Build on passion If people really care about a new idea (and there are plenty in the sector who really are devoted to the work that they do) they are likely to go that extra mile. I suggest that one criterion for idea selection should always be level of enthusiasm- people have an uncanny way of finding time for things they really care about and enjoy doing.

For more posts on Innovative Environment visit the NCVO Innovation web pages   Katherine William-Powlett’s blog

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