Sometimes the Best Ideas Come from the Most Surprising Sources

Sometimes the Best Ideas Come from the Most Surprising Sources

You don’t have to be Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell or Richard Bowyer Smith, to have a great idea. The third one was the guy who invented the stump-jump plough.

The greatest myth of innovation is that it happens in an instant. A spark of genius happens and then “BOOM” it’s an instant commercial success. Of course, it’s obvious, and everybody knows that this [insert your new idea here] is the ‘best thing since sliced bread.’

In running Brisbane Small Business, a group of small business owners on Facebook, a question came up recently “I have a lot of great ideas and get frustrated that often I see them being made commercially available a little later by someone else… How can I get investors to buy into my idea?”

Here’s the point, we all have great ideas. As leaders, it’s our role. More than that— it’s our duty to our team and the business to harness those ideas. We also need to explore how our business, whether as an owner, a director or an employee, can benefit from the great ideas of all of the team to maximise the future prosperity of the business.

In researching this piece, I discovered a 12-year-old girl who established a program to turn grease into fuel in the Philippines. Surely she’s too young to be taken seriously (NOT).

If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there will be little hope for it.

– Albert Einstein

Allowing time for passion projects wasn’t invented by Google, with their famous 20% rule, although some deny this really exists anymore. The history of 3M makes interesting reading and has had such a scheme since 1948.

I thought I knew the story of Post-it notes, but I was wildly mistaken. The urban myth I heard was a 3M employee used to apply the paste to the back of pieces of paper and stick them on the wall to keep track of all his projects. But the real story is much different.

Spencer Silver was an engineer working for the company and had developed an adhesive that was lighter than usual and wouldn’t leave a mark when removed. Sometime later, another employee, Art Fry, was using the adhesive to keep bookmarks in place in his hymn book. It got noticed by the business and they tried to launch it in 1977. It was a flop and almost got shelved. Two years later, they distributed samples to a target audience and asked if they would buy it. 94% responded positively and it was rebranded as Post-It this time. The story went on from there.

Workers at 3M were given up to 15% of their time to pursue something they discovered through the normal course of their work but did not have time to follow up on. This allowed for many great initiatives to harness sufficient momentum to build into a commercial initiative. This is what makes 3M the company it is today.

With Google, things are a little different. There’s an argument that the actual 20% passion project time no longer exists. “It’s really 120% time”, reports Marissa Mayer, now head of Yahoo.

Even Paul Buchheit, the creator of Gmail conceeds. “I was supposed to work on an email thing.” He started on the project in 1996, Paul was the 23rd employee at the company. After a few weeks, the initial project was shelved as it was going nowhere. Then in 2001, he recommenced work on the idea, adding a search engine to his own email. After a short time, he realised that without being able to search others accounts, the practice was not worthwhile.

He added in other project contributors, and then it started to gain momentum. Realising that he needed a series of wins to keep interest in the project, he continued to add features to his existing platform. That was how Gmail became a commercial reality three years later on 1 April 2004.

Yes, many thought it was an elaborate hoax at first, with Google offering 500 times more capacity than Microsoft’s Hotmail. Soon enough, people realised it wasn’t, and quickly jumped on board.

With all the talk of ‘Distruption’ these days, sometimes improvement gets overlooked. We’re seeking a bigger hit! Yet business needs to be strategic in its approach. We need to protect our core products and brand, constantly improving them and then seek innovation.

It doesn’t come as any surprise that there’s a consistent 15%-20% mentioned in terms of following a passion project for innovation. In a mature business, a ratio of 60% core delivery, 20% improvement and 20% innovation is about as high as a business can afford whilst maintaining profitability.

Offering team members at every level the opportunity to pursue a passion project, unearthed during the natural course of business, can be a great strategy for both motivation and profitability. Just make sure that we’re exploring projects that can one day add value to the business, and that we’re not expecting overnight success.

If that’s true for mature business, what does it say for smaller businesses? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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