How Much Time Does Innovation Take?

If you're trying to build innovation into your small business’s culture and wonder what the best ways to encourage innovation are, knowing what kind of time frame to use would be useful.
June 08, 2011

How fast does innovation happen? How long does it take to come up with truly innovative ideas—a day, a week, a year? The answer could be all these and more. Some business ideas germinate slowly, bubbling under the surface for months. Others come in a flash of insight that leaves you wondering, “Why didn’t I ever think of that before?”

But if you are trying to build innovation into your small business’s culture and wonder what the best ways to encourage innovation are, knowing what kind of time frame to use would be useful. FastCompany recently took a look at the practice of hack-a-thons, frequently used by tech companies such as Facebook and Google. In these all-night coding sessions, employees are encouraged to create something that’s not related to their day-to-day jobs—the results are often groundbreaking.

Hack-a-thons are a slightly different take on Google’s famous “20 percent” culture, where employees are urged to spend 20 percent of their time working on projects that aren’t related to their current duties and may possibly never have real-world applications. Both approaches are meant to stimulate creative thinking by allowing employees to explore ideas unrestricted by their job duties.

Recently, however, Facebook decided that an all-night session wasn’t enough and started monthlong hack-a-thons. During hack-a-month, FastCompany reports, “employees do nothing but intensively build out ambitious projects.” One of the biggest success stories to come out of hack-a-month was Facebook Deals, the social networking site’s new daily deal feature.

What lessons can your small business learn from hack-a-thon and hack-a-month?

Time is of the essence

Sure, innovation sometimes comes in a flash, but if you really want to encourage it, you and your staff need to set aside time for it. People can’t innovate on command—it takes some time to get out of the workaday mind-set and get in the groove. You may not be able to set aside a month (or a night) to devote to innovation, but setting aside a Friday afternoon or a full day on a regular basis is do-able.

Be selective

Not everyone at the tech companies get to do hack-a-thons or hack-a-month. Employees have to be chosen. Being selective could make extended innovation sessions more realistic for a small business. Let a few key people take more time for innovation. (One valuable side effect of hack-a-month is cross-training because engineers who participate leave their normal jobs for a month—the employees who work with them have to learn their roles and duties to handle their part of the project.)

Think like a startup

FastCompany points out that one key to success at Facebook and other tech companies is that new product innovations are run like “mini-startups.” Employees get ideas, recruit peers to help and then work as autonomous teams inside the bigger company. For your small business, it should be even easier to get back to that startup attitude. Sometimes, the best approach may be to give employees what they need, then get out of their way.

Value inexperience

When Facebook decided to get involved with daily deals, they didn’t bring in an expert in the topic. Instead, they set their own engineers loose on the daily deal concept. Because their expertise was in social media, the engineers had a totally different approach than the deal experts would have—and one that proved ultimately beneficial.

Learning what doesn’t work is valuable, too. Not every hack-a-thon or even hack-a-month produces a breakthrough idea. A certain number of dead ends and failures are an inevitable part of innovation. That’s OK—in the long run, learning what not to do can be just as helpful to growing your business.