Issue IV - Inspiring employees to innovate
Fostering employee innovation
When you encourage your employees to innovate, it carries a sense of ownership that lets everyone know they’re a vital part of the process. And that in turn strengthens your business.   

From CEO to new hire, innovation is important at every level of an organization. When you encourage your employees to innovate, it carries a sense of ownership that lets everyone know they’re a vital part of the process. And that in turn strengthens your business.  

That’s why it’s a good idea to talk with employees about their role in innovation. Everyone has a different perspective, and encouraging employees to share theirs has the potential to unlock new opportunities for your business.  
As an entrepreneur, you know the power of innovation. You may even remember the moment when something first clicked and put you on the path to your business. How would things change if employees had those same breakthrough moments? Your leadership role paves the way for those moments to become more common.
Brad Smith and Eric Ries explore the role leaders can play in living the values outlined in “The Lean Startup.” 
And when innovation permeates your company’s culture, it changes everything. Employees become more engaged, customers get better service, and optimism defines the environment.  There are a few things you can do to encourage innovation from your employees, but it all boils down to recognizing their contributions.  

One powerful way to foster innovation is to encourage creativity throughout the workday. What’s great is this can be as simple as going for a walk. When people get out of their chairs and become a little more active, they stretch both their physical and mental muscles.  

Another way to foster innovation is to specifically set aside time for it. This ‘unstructured time’ inspires employees to seek out new challenges and develop interesting solutions. Rather than being a waste of time, this strategy has already led to developments like Post-it notes and Gmail. No matter what you call it, this time can lead to breakthrough ideas and help employees stay engaged with their work.  

When you inspire employees to innovate, it transforms your company. From solving relevant business challenges to developing a creative work environment, employee innovation plays an important role in your company’s success.
How ‘doing your own thing’ gets innovation moving

Intuit Lab’s Jeff Zias on how unstructured time gives employees the freedom to explore and discover opportunities your business might have otherwise missed. 

Imagine this: A bunch of your employees are spinning around in their chairs, sticking pencils in the ceiling and shooting spitballs at one another. You open a conference room door only to find a squad of misanthropes playing Angry Birds, Tweeting and watching kittens play the piano on YouTube.

But these nightmares don’t represent the reality of “unstructured time,” a program giving employees the freedom to work on a product or idea even if it is only peripherally related to their company’s business. Unstructured time is more likely to inspire employees to invent something useful for your customers or other employees than to scour YouTube for silly animal clips.

The next big idea for your company and your career may be hiding in you or your employees – in the depth of all of that experience and information in your neural network. To help surface those big ideas, some companies now offer unstructured time as part of their innovation initiatives. The amount of time and the approach to unstructured time varies from company to company.

At Intuit, employees may spend 10 percent of their working hours on unstructured time – the “jet fuel” powering our grass roots innovation engine. By giving our employees some time to explore their areas of passion to drive growth, we are becoming increasingly recognized as an innovation leader. In fact, Fortune magazine recognized our unstructured time efforts when it ranked us number 19* on its list of Best Companies to Work For list. And the business and innovation best-seller “Drive,” by Dan Pink, references Intuit’s unstructured time program as a key to driving successful and continuous innovation within a large company.

Consider the success of SnapTax, which allows people to prepare and file simple tax returns on their iPhone in a matter of minutes. First conceptualized by a small unstructured time team back in 2009, the “just snap a picture of your W2” idea was picked up by our Consumer Tax division and has become one of Intuit’s most interesting new offerings. We’ve also scored big unstructured time wins with Intuit Payment Network, TurboTax for the iPad, View My Paycheck and Intuit Brainstorm, to name a few.

Most unstructured time programs evolve as employees and their leaders customize the program to suit their company’s culture. As part of the evolution at Intuit, employees are stepping up to champion the program, volunteering to mentor colleagues looking for ways to use their unstructured time.

These champions are often available to add certain skills to a project, or to help unstructured time teams and individuals at a particular Intuit location. Employees can easily find the unstructured time champions and their areas of assistance on the collaboration Web application called Intuit Brainstorm. Flexibility is also important in an unstructured time program. Some employees might want to spend a certain number of hours of each day or each week working on their unstructured time project. Others might want to bank their time and use most of it during one specific time period.

Unstructured time puts innovation to work. How are you using your unstructured time? Use the comments section below to share your ideas for making the most of unstructured time.

* This was originally posted on Intuit Network on 1/20/2012. Since the original piece was posted, Intuit has become #8 on FORTUNE’s list of best places to work.  

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