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Innovation: 3 ways companies do it wrong

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Today, you’re either innovating or you’re falling behind. 97% of CEOs label innovation as a “top priority” for their company. The best companies are the ones that continue to innovate and have HR departments scouring the globe in a never-ending search for the most creative talent available.

The problem is, internal innovation programs are hard to implement, which is why few do so successfully. Below are three common pitfalls of companies trying to accelerate employee innovation, along with some examples of those that do it right.

1. Designating “innovation time”

You’ve heard about Google giving days off to employees to work on side projects and Quicken Loans’ “BulletTime” initiative. You’ve also seen reports of 3M allowing employees to take hours at a time to work on their own projects. So you decide to implement something similar at your company and are disappointed when no one comes back with the next Gmail.

For most employees, it is incredibly hard to devote time to side ventures. Other responsibilities at work take precedence, meetings need to be attended, and deadlines still have to be met. Oftentimes employees simply cannot take advantage of innovation time. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who will take the time, but as additional vacation, producing nothing of real value to the company.

“Innovation time off” protocols need to be accompanied with structure in order to be successful. I recommend taking a look at Australian software firm Atlassian’s “FedEx Day.” Employees can take one day every quarter to work on whatever they like; however, in return they must present what they have accomplished — along with a demo — to a panel of judges at the end of the 24-hour period. This gives employees the freedom to work on their own passions, but the structure to produce great new ideas for the company.

2. Delegating innovation

Corporate culture is a top-down initiative. Even when that culture involves empowering lower-level employees with responsibilities such as innovation, head executives need to participate as well.

Too often, executives are all but invisible in internal innovation programs, giving the impression that they have more important matters to deal with. As an executive, even if your intention is to get out of the way and let others take part in the process, your presence must still be felt.

IDEO, a San Francisco-based design company, is regularly considered one of the most innovative companies in the world, with credits such as the laptop and Apple’s first mouse to its name. CEO Tim Brown attributes a large part of the company’s success to leadership involvement in innovation:

You really notice a difference in organizations where the senior leadership immerses itself in innovation. … it immerses itself by, for example, playing an active role in reviewing the innovation that’s going on at various levels in the organization in order to give people permission to take risks.”

3. Leaving out the next steps

So a team of employees has developed an excellent new product or service. Now what? The void between a creation and actually leveraging it for corporate benefit is often so wide that many companies can’t overcome it.

Without proper next steps, innovation programs are worthless. While their “15%” rule may be more famous, I find 3M’s “30% rule” equally, if not more, intriguing. The manufacturing company requires that each division generate 30% of its quarterly sales from products introduced within the past few years. Such a mandate keeps the innovation engine going strong, as new ideas are a goal for all members of a division.

With technological progress moving at a faster rate than ever, innovation needs to be a core mission at all companies, large and small. While I’ve seen many do it correctly, I’ve also seen more than a fair share of companies roadblock themselves into not moving forward at all. By heeding these three pitfalls, you will be better positioned to move fast down the road to innovation.

Andy Miller is chief innovation architect at Constant Contact, where he runs the Small Business Innovation Program. He was CEO of CardStar and previously founded Lumifi LLC, Quece LLC,, and StockCar Stocks Mutual Fund, where he served on the board of directors. In addition, Miller has held various positions at PFPC, T. Rowe Price, Putnam Investments and Bank of America. He holds a BA in economics from SUNY Oswego, a MS in entrepreneurial studies from Suffolk University and serves as a member of the Entrepreneur Leadership Council at Suffolk University.