It's rewarding in itself, and because you want to see your project be a success, you will go the extra mile to ensure that it is a success.
Companies need to tap into the innovation talents of their employees by allowing them to innovate.
Many companies are well known for the innovation cultures: Google, 3M, IBM and Lockheed Martin all have formalised programs to support their employees work on their own projects.
Google realised early on that it couldn't employ all the top talent and require them to work exclusively on company-mandated projects. A company board and its senior management don't have a monopoly on all of the good ideas.
Google crowd-sourced innovation among all of their employees. Google Moderator, GMail, Google News and Google Earth are all examples of technologies that were innovated by Google employees as personal projects.
If an employee has an up-hill climb to get their personal project off the ground, very little innovation will be achieved. Support for innovation needs to be baked into your company culture.
If a company has a personal projects programme in place, when a new idea is suggested the company has a mechanism for shepherding that idea to a successful outcome. Rather than asking the question "how many ways can this new idea fail", a company should be asking "how can we all make this a success".
In 2006, a young podcasting company called Odeo had a brain storming session of its board members. One of their number suggested a website that could let users send short messages to their friends. This new project was started in late March 2006 and the first publicly available version was completed four months later.
Twitter now has 500 million active users and more than $130M in revenues. In hindsight, the success of some ideas seems so obvious. Odeo could have put the messaging system to one side as it didn't seem to be too relevant to their podcasting core. But they didn't, they took a risk, a relatively low risk as the system only took a matter of months and if it hadn't worked, those involved could have returned to podcasting.
Some managers view personal projects as risky because, in their view, staff aren't focussed on what they should be doing. But with a company-wide programme in place, everyone knows that a certain amount of employee time (20% at Google) is invested in personal projects.
Once this is known, everyone can manage company projects alongside personal ones. Ultimately, such an approach comes down to trusting your staff. Companies have to trust those that work for them and if a rewarding programme is put in place, staff will rise to the challenge of their own projects and put in significantly more time overall, much more than their standard 40 hours per week.
Personal projects don't all have to lead to new technologies like Twitter and GMail. Such a project could be as simple as investigating a new technology and understanding how it might be used within the company. By starting with small projects, a company can feel their way into this new space gradually and learn how to make it work within their culture.
To do this effectively, the whole company has to practise the same approach to innovation. If only one team is given time to work on their own projects, other teams may schedule meetings for regular company business at the same time.
All teams have to take the same approach and this applies to the whole of the company, including its management team. Management can innovate by putting into place the programme that will assist others in spending their personal projects time fruitfully, ensuring a return for the business.
Formalised approaches to innovation do work. University-based research projects are typically three years long and the success factors are understood at the start. Regular project reviews keep all involved up-to-date on the project's current status and its future direction allowing project managers to steer it towards a favourable outcome.
Part of the reason for the iPhone being so popular is the large (700,000+) apps that are currently available for it. Apple realised that they couldn't write all of the apps for their smartphone, as had been the case with other smartphones before, so Apple opened up writing apps to the market-place.
Apple's innovation was to allow others to innovate in a way that made the iPhone more desirable, boosting sales of that device.
Ideas can come from anywhere. The late Ron Hickman came up with a million selling idea when he damaged a chair he was using to steady a piece of wood that he was sawing through when making a wardrobe. His Workmate bench was eventually licensed by Black and Decker and over 30 million have now been sold.
Sir James Dyson originally launched his dual cyclone bag-less vacuum cleaner via catalogue sales in Japan. No British manufacturer or distributor would handle his product in the UK as it was feared the innovation would disturb the 100 million pound market for replacement dust bags.
Innovation doesn't call for permission. Staff shouldn't have to wade through a bureaucracy to try something new. Companies should nurture innovation and value those staff that bring it new ideas, working with them to turn their ideas into successful products.
One idea can lead to a big return and personal projects are a low-risk way to nurture innovation. Most companies have an infrastructure in place that lets them perform their day-to-day tasks. Employees should be encouraged to exploit that infrastructure to create tomorrow's products.
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