COMPANY CULTURE

Why You Should Let Your Employees Do Whatever They Want

Focus and discipline are relics of 20th century business. Here's what's taking their place in the virtual, open source era. 


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Focus can be a powerful thing. Many entrepreneurs and business owners built their fortunes by driving relentlessly toward a single goal. It’s no surprise so many of them eliminate any project that isn’t related to their company’s “core competency.”



But the world has changed.



Take RIM, the creators of the Blackberry. With the invention of the first viable smartphone, the company became a major corporation virtually overnight. But when superior versions replaced what they pioneered, they had nothing else in the pipeline. Today RIM is on death’s doorstep.



Organizations like 3M and Google have famously dealt with this problem by allowing employees to spend a percentage of their time on projects of their own choosing, as long as they were related to their industry. While responsible for a tremendous number of blockbuster products, these programs no longer go far enough. 



These days, becoming an innovation machine requires a radical approach.



The Penicillin Paradigm



Almost everyone knows the story of the invention of penicillin. After accidentally leaving bacteria cultures out to get moldy overnight, scientist Alexander Fleming noticed the germs didn’t grow where the mold did. He isolated the active compound, turned it into a drug, and bam!--millions of lives saved.



What most people don’t know is why Fleming made those cultures in the first place. The cultures were in fact part of an odd art project that Fleming worked on when he wasn’t involved in formal experiments. The scientist spent his off hours creating petri dish sculptures out of bacteria. 



What motivated the inventor of penicillin to create what is arguably the most important medical development in history was the pure joy of creation combined with ownership of the outcome.



Become an Innovation Machine By Giving Up Control

Like Fleming, many of your present and future employees have interests and ideas they wish they could spend more time on. So make it easy for them to do just that. Allow everyone at your company to spend a percentage of their time working on absolutely any project of their choosing. If they want to work on creating a new software solution, app, or marketing platform, that’s fine, but only if it sets their souls ablaze. If what an employee really wants to be doing is painting a surrealist landscape, authoring a political thriller, choreographing a performance art piece, or developing a new type of sporting event, find that out and give it equal encouragement.



Treat these projects as you would any other deliverable. Put deadlines around different phases of completion. Host company-wide events where everyone is expected to present their works-in-process and completed prototypes. If you treat your innovation lab like a last priority, employees will sense it, and they’ll be afraid to work on their piece during company time.



Finally, communicate the message that your employees own what they come up with, with an important exception. Make it clear that your company has the right of first refusal to play an active role in turning projects with potential into successes, whether as a partner, agent, angel investor, or shareholder.



By letting your team do whatever they want, you’ll attract the best people with the best ideas. At the same time, the insights your employees gain through their creative projects will enhance their work on your organization’s core offerings. Most importantly, you’ll never have to worry that about what happens when the product or service on which you built your company becomes obsolete, because you’ll always have a string of new ones ready to take its place.


Last updated: Feb 18, 2014

MICHAEL SCHEIN | Columnist | Founder and Principal of Michael Schein Communications

Michael Schein is the founder and principal of Michael Schein Communications, a digital marketing company. He has created or facilitated the production of content for companies such as eBay, LinkedIn, Avectra, Tesla, SEER Interactive, Interneer, Arise Virtual Solutions, and Citrix. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with honors and got his start at Spin the Bottle, the production company behind VH1 hit show Pop-Up Video.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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