Recently, I had the opportunity to speak in Copenhagen at Denmark Technical University on the topic of engineering leadership and the culture of innovation. Topics included the ways that innovation goes wrong and how important it is for firms to diversify away from the business models that have worked in the firm’s past.
One of the ideas presented was that organizations often use a combination of free time and/or other ways to get activation energy to help the organization innovate. Certainly Google’s 20% and Facebook’s Hackathons are famous models of providing this activation energy. 3M and HP had versions of these models many years ago. And these firms also developed new skills and new products by drawing out the creativity of their own employees.
After the talk, I was contacted by Zahid Abdullah, CEO of TEO, an outsourcing and software services firm operating in Denmark with offices in Pakistan. He told me a very interesting story. He actually did an experiment on this topic. He assigned his Pakistan group to activate innovation with open-ended assignments, allowing the team to experiment in new areas. The results were surprising. In short, nothing happened. After investigation by an MBA student hired by TEO, the engineers explained that 1) they were not sure what to work on if it was not assigned and 2) they did not want to be embarrassed to show their self-assigned work. There were other factors as well.
Fundamentally, this is surprising. We would have thought that just having the opportunity and time to do creative work would be enough. It turns out that those models that work like clockwork in Silicon Valley don’t work as well everywhere else. Unlocking the barriers to innovation seem to have important cultural aspects besides processes and skills. For more information, please see the downloadable report: TEO_SL-REPORT_PUBLIC by Aisha Gul (as MBA student, Aalborg University), “EVALUATION OF SOFTWARE LAB AT TEO available at http://ow.ly/kSgxN[Related topics: overcoming fear, risk, Silicon Valley culture transfer]
– Ikhlaq Sidhu