When I was in college, one of my favorite professors had a saying that has stuck with me for decades.  Entrepreneurs, he said, had it easy.  They always got to work half days and even got to choose which 12 hours they worked.  Good jokes always have an unexpected punch line, and this one is no different.  Entrepreneurs are people whose passion, interest and engagement is such that they are willing to do more and work more than the 'corporate drones' in large organizations.  They get to choose when their 12 hour shift occurs.

I was thinking about this when I realized that almost all innovation is ultimately about time.  Incremental innovation is about doing more in the same time, or perhaps in less time.  Disruptive innovation is about doing far more in less time, or perhaps doing something more valuable in less time.  These examples are all about the outcome of innovation. Interestingly,  many of the reasons we don't innovate also have to do with time:  too little time, too much time spent doing other things.  When it boils down to it, innovators and entrepreneurs have some shared challenges, and one of the most important is time.

Time as a deliverable

For most of modern history, innovation has been about gaining or saving time.  Modern appliances like the electric oven, dishwasher, clothes dryer and other devices have been focused on saving people time.  Later apps like online gaming and Facebook seem to fill time we saved by all the previous innovations, unfortunately, but so many new innovations are focused on making people more efficient.  This idea of saving people time and making them more productive with the time they have is probably the most important thing an innovator can deliver with a new product or service.

We can see this play out in the opposite direction as well.  New solutions that promise dramatic benefits but take a long time to learn or to adopt are less interesting consumers.  I think that's why Jobs demanded that the iPhone have only one button - it appears to be easier to learn and to use, thus eliminating time to learn a new product.  Saving time or using time more effectively is a key benefit for innovators and entrepreneurs.

Time as a barrier

While innovators are interested in delivering more time to their customers, time is also one of the most significant barriers to innovation.  If you boil down all the issues that keep people from innovating, you'll find that many have to do with time:  not enough time, too many other priorities, unclear allocation of time, using valuable time to learn new skills that may or may not create value.

Thus, time creates either a virtuous cycle (more innovation leads to more time to do more things) or creates a significant blockade (too busy to innovate leads to less innovation and more busyness).  I think that every entrepreneur and innovator needs to ask themselves a few questions when they embark on a new project:

  1. How does the project or solution I'm undertaking create more time or help people use time more effectively?
  2. What factors in my job or life are filling up my time that could be reduced or eliminated to allow more time for innovation?
  3. When my innovation efforts lead to more available time, how will I use that time for more creativity and innovation?

If entrepreneurs and innovators enter every project with a focus on gaining time, and will ignore time pressures or the feeling they don't have enough time, everyone will benefit.  It's a self-fulfilling prophecy in many ways:  the more time you commit to innovation, the more time you'll get to do more innovation.  And the reverse is also true.

Published on: Jul 25, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.