Cut employees some “slack”

Employees who are consumed by assigned work seldom have time to bring new ideas to the business. Employers need to provide some “slack” if they want to be innovative.

The executive team at 3M thought they had killed a development project for notepads with adhesive backings. But even though employees on the development team were told to let it go, they remained convinced the idea was a winner.

Performing an end-run around the executive office, the project members delivered the prototype notepads to the secretaries of the senior team.

The secretaries who were thrilled with the handy notepads were just as disappointed when they found out there were none left and annoyed when they heard it was their bosses that were to blame. Soon after, management had a change of heart and the development team was told to go ahead with their plan to develop Post-it Notes, one of 3M’s most successful products.

The moral? It’s OK — even a good thing — for employees to go a little maverick sometimes. Because innovation comes from employees taking risks and innovation is what will determine success in the knowledge economy.

The challenge is creating a culture where employees have the time and freedom to separate themselves far enough from the daily grind to bring new ideas into the organization, says Frances Horibe author of Managing Knowledge Workers: New Skills and Attitudes to Unlock the Intellectual Capital in your Organization.

Employees are always busy running at full speed, struggling just to get their assigned work done. But it has been shown that organizations that schedule more than 75 per cent of their employees’ time are unable to identify new business opportunities because they become so consumed by their daily tasks they barely have time to look up from their desks.

In the knowledge economy, the best, most successful firms will be those that actually allocate time for innovation. In most cases that means businesses are going to have to do some process re-engineering.

If businesses look carefully at how they do things they should be able to streamline operations by cutting away some of the overhead work employees have to deal with. Overhead is any work that doesn’t directly serve the customer, Horibe says. “In a really well run organization overhead is about 30 per cent, but in most organizations it’s about 50 per cent.”

While countless businesses have endured re-engineerings in recent years, often times the results don’t come at the other end because work just gets moved around rather than reduced.

“Work has to come out and it should be dropped, but in most cases it isn’t,” she says. In most cases it is an internal trust problem where businesses remain caught up in multi-level approval processes. At one company it took 18 signoffs to solve a problem that was upsetting customers.

For years now 3M has been encouraging and rewarding employees who bring innovative ideas into the organization and turn those ideas into products or services that benefit the 3M bottom line. They call it 15 per cent time.

“It is the freedom we give employees to spend 15 per cent of their time on projects not sanctioned by the job they’re in,” says Dave Gagnon, a technical manager, with 3M.

Employees don’t actually take 15 per cent of their week off to work for intellectual exploration, top priority is still getting your job done, says Gagnon.

Basically there is a realization that management doesn’t always know best and by formally recognizing employee time to work on innovative projects it reinforces the philosophy that taking risks is OK. Formalized bootlegging, Gagnon calls it.

If every new project or idea was evaluated as a success of failure, the success rate would be down around 10 per cent. “The trick is to fail fast.”

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