You Lack Allocation and Purpose, Not Time to Innovate

You don’t lack time to innovate, you lack allocation and purpose. There’s a big difference.

You’ll forgive me if I lapse into a bit of consultant speak – can’t help but do so since I’ve been in consulting for many years. One of the factors that dictates what people do as consultants (and in other jobs or industries where time is tracked to projects or other expense categories) is the availability of charge codes.

Everyone knows that lawyers, for example, typically bill their time in 15 minute increments. They need not only to bill their time in these time segments, but they also need a “charge code” – some mechanism to associate the time they just spent to a client, a business development activity or some overhead charge.

As consultants, most of us are no different. Regardless of how you ultimately bill the client (time and materials, fixed fee, gain-sharing or other mechanisms) almost every consultant and consulting firm I’m aware of tracks consulting time. I’m sure the same is true in many other industries where people are accountable for a time sheet at the end of a week or month.

Tracking Time

In a consulting firm, where you spend your time matters, especially if you are expected to generate revenues by billing clients. As a consultant one of your primary goals is to generate enough business to sustain your salary and overhead costs. A second goal is develop new and interesting value propositions or skills that can provide customers with new insights and create service differentiation for yourself or your company.  In the consulting business we call this “practice development”.  A third goal is business development, spending time to talk to new prospects and existing customers about new work. Finally, in every business there is some time that is simply “overhead” – filing, retrieving data, filling out time cards, doing stuff that drives the business forward but isn’t billable.

As an individual with a time sheet, you are constantly evaluating your time commitments:  how much time for this customer?  How much time and effort for that customer?  How much time in business development? How much time in practice development?  Time and how it is accounted for, becomes a major consideration in everything you do.

Cobbler’s Kids

Which is why even consulting firms need a charge code for innovation.  While we in the consulting industry are good at tracking and allocating time, we aren’t always good about spending time innovating our own products, services and business models.  And time allocation matters – if you have a goal of being 70% chargeable, that’s where your focus and emphasis will be.  Which means you’ll spend more time with customers and less on business development, practice development and lastly, of course, will be innovation.  This is why even consulting firms that lead innovation efforts are often like the Cobbler’s kids – they have the worst shoes.  Even those of us who talk to our customers about making time for innovation often fail to do it well.

If we, who track time so assiduously fail to define time and account for time spent on innovation, what must it be like for corporate practitioners who don’t account for their time or worst, don’t have specific time allocations?  As we know, innovation is very important but rarely urgent, so it frequently slips down the “to do” list until it becomes an utter necessity, at which point it becomes a “rush job”.  No time allocation, no fixed expectation of time spent in innovation and an acceptance of allowing innovation to fall to the bottom of priorities mean that very little time is spent building skills to become better at innovation, let alone actually doing innovation.

What If

But what if everyone in your company had to account for their time, and what if everyone had a specific time allocation for innovation? That might differ depending on the individual, their experience and interest in innovation of course, but what if at the end of each year you could look across your team and see how much time an individual spent building innovation skills and contributing to innovation projects. Wouldn’t that be valuable as a manager?

Wouldn’t the signal that people will be expected to spend time on innovation, and that time will be managed and accounted for, send signals about the importance of innovation and the expectations that innovation must deliver results?    All too often we hear that people within corporations don’t have time for innovation.  That’s because they believe they are 100% allocated to their “day jobs” and can’t afford distractions or time away.  What if managers and executives specifically allocated and measured time spent in innovation by individual, team and department, and set goals for each individual or group, and examined the outputs and outcome.  Do you think people would find time for innovation?  Do you think more innovation would get done?  Of course the answer to these questions is “yes”.

Innovation With a Purpose

But the final twist to this story isn’t just that people should spend significant time, but that they should be focused on significant opportunities.  It’s easy for people to commit 5% of their time to innovation and to generate really incremental ideas.  That outcome isn’t really all that better than what happens today.  Beyond simply allocating and evaluating time, management teams should include specific portfolio goals – 70% of your innovation time on incremental tasks, 30% on disruptive ideas, and then measure against those goals.  If every individual or team in your company spent 5% of their time on innovation (100 hours in a 2000 hour work year) and 30% of that time was focused on disruptive innovation (30 hours per individual per year), could we expect some really new and interesting ideas?  You bet we could.

What’s holding innovation back?  Time.  Time to think, time to explore, time to experiment.  And strangely, we aren’t time deficient.  Most people work a 9-5 job and spend inordinate amounts of time in meetings where very little gets decided or done.  If we could reclaim even a modest amount of that time and reallocate it to more important activities, and direct those innovation activities to more interesting outcomes, the innovation most companies could create would be incredible.

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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes, and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose. Follow him @ovoinnovation

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