Innovation is clearly a good thing.  Customers love innovative products – the iPod and the whole industry supporting it is a great example.  Management loves innovative thinking to improve internal processes – the whole agile movement in software development started with some folks thinking about how we can do things better.  Shareholders love both innovative products and processes as it increases revenue and profit.  Finally, employees love to work in a group that prides itself on its innovative thinking.

Our team has recently completed its annual performance review and goal setting cycle.  Since innovation is clearly such a good thing, our management decided that we should try to set some goals around innovation.  But how do you go about setting a reasonable goal?  How do you measure if you’ve been successful? 

More important than the goals and measurements is this - how do you enable a culture of innovation?  The 3M Corporation has long set the standard for driving success through innovation.  As documented in Built to Last, the growth of the company in the early days was due to a culture which encouraged the organization to ‘self-mutate from within’.  From that culture spawned sand paper, masking tape, scotch tape, post-it notes, and many more products.  Customers, management, shareholders, and employees (which even included me as a Coop Engineer during college) have all been happy for a lot of years!

3M has several mechanisms in place to encourage innovation.  Probably the most visible and intriguing is the “15 percent rule”.  This rule encourages technical people to spend up to 15% of their time working on projects of their own choosing and initiative. 

Lots of other companies have been labeled as ‘innovative’, including Microsoft.  But I’m more interested in enabling innovation in the small.  What mechanisms can a department in a large company put in place to enable innovation?  What can I do as a team leader? 

I have a couple of ideas, but I would love to hear from others.  Please add a comment or contact me directly if you have some ideas for enabling innovation – either a new idea or something that you’ve seen that worked well in the past.