Innovation nation: how to inspire innovators in the office

Lessons in encouraging innovation from the best at Google, 3M and Apple

“Innovate or die” has long been the rule for business – touted by Bill Gates among other tech leaders. So what lessons can you learn from some of the top innovating companies?

Google’s famous 20% rule allows workers to spend a day a week working on a project that’s close to their heart, rather than something directed from above. It’s a policy that’s seen the development of some of Google’s most popular features including Gmail and Google Calendar.

“Google proved that you could systematize innovation to create an environment where are asking why things are the way they are, and wondering if they can be done in a different way — where you look outside your own field for an idea,” Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said.

So how can this apply to smaller companies, which may not have the . Even offering a day a month, or group innovation projects is a start. Also key is the acceptance of a certain amount of waste. Every great idea goes through a period of challenge and failure, and for every great idea you may have to discard a dozen bad ones.

But where do these ideas come from? For 3M it’s about looking for problems that people haven’t even acknowledged yet. Their line of Post-It linked pens came from observing students switching between highlighting notes and marking pages. The gift wrap dispenser, which straps to the users hand and dispenses individual strips of tape, was a brainwave from watching wrappers pre-prepare strips of tape. It’s about encouraging staff to consider common problems their clients face, and to look for solutions rather than accepting that that’s how it’s always been done, and always will be done.

3M also offers a career ladder for scientists that mimics that of managers, ensuring that innovation and results are rewarded and recognized.

Apple has long been held as one of the leading tech innovation – but its successes stem from culture, not from spending.

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about the money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it,” Apple founder Steve Jobs said.

A major point of difference is the idea of encouraging wrong answers. Instead of focusing on finding the right answer and moving on, Apple employees are encouraged to keep looking at problems from different angles looking for opportunities to improve old products or develop new ones.

Finally, Apple rewards great innovation with great rewards – often in bonuses and other forms of compensation. So what’s a money-short company to do when it wants to recognize great work? Give what you can, and what employees want. Whether it’s extra vacation days for specific achievements, or gradually improving titles talk to staff about how they’d like to be recognized and work to make that happen.

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