Too Busy to Innovate

September 6th, 2007 19 Comments

office_space.pngI had a conversation with a product manager over IM today that got thinking big thoughts about stuff, you know, like Paul does. I’ve known this PM dude for years and worked with him while I was in development. Great guy, with massive doses of cynicism and negativity, at least when it comes to work.

He wanted to know why I kept spamming him with invitations to join Connect. Alas, I am guilty of this sin, but not because I want to brag about the biggest network (as Rich would have you believe), but rather because it’s my job to evangelize new web and spread Connect goodness throughout the land, erm Oracle. Here are the excerpted highlights.

PM: wtf is this network 2.0/connect/social virus/networking thing you keep pinging me about? :)
Me: what do you mean? it’s our social network for oracle
PM: does it DO anything?
Me: what do you want it to do?
PM: I have no effing idea, don’t know wtf it is or what it’s meant to do
Me: blah, blah, blah marketing crap (is this what i’ve become?)
PM: apologies, just so swamped at my end of the spectrum I don’t have any time to check out this stuff or read any of the internal spam/schmarketing emails that appear in my inbox

Anyway, I assured him he should not stress about Connect and take it easy. This exchange emphasized several key points, most of which we’ve discussed in this space recently.

  1. Enterprise 2.0 is tough. People have way too much to do anyway and want immediate benefits and a killer app before they are willing to spend time.
  2. Most people are professional and want to do good work or at least keep their jobs, a nice case study for why bans don’t work.
  3. Innovation is hard, especially if you follow a waterfall process for development. The tradeoff for process and accountability should not be innovation, but unfortunately, it sometime is. Finding a balance is the holy grail.
  4. Despite what you read here and in other places, Web 2.0 ain’t a household name yet. People focus on what it takes to get through the day, and everything else is secondary. Many people (believe it or not) spend their secondary time on “First Life” activities, i.e. not online.
  5. This is the scary one. People are too damned busy filling out TPS reports to innovate.

Of course, this last one in the current context assumes that Connect (and AppsLab) are innovative. Setting aside that bit for later discussion, the question does work crush innovative spirit?

Maybe it’s a function of increasingly busy lives, but time seems ever precious. If your manager outlines your priorities and establishes dates for them, why would you waste time on other activities, like checking out a cool social network? In development, we had outlined objectives, and one year, coming up innovation and ideas was one of them. As odd as this sounds, you know it came from an executive who wanted to foster innovation and had essentially good motives.

However, when the time came to figure out how to get innovation, the only workable idea was to mandate it. Therefore, the mandate got pushed down the chain, and when it got to me, it was in the form of an edict. “Your objective is to come up with X innovations and Y ideas each quarter.” Of course, my performance and appraisal are based on objectives, which is why they have to be quantitative. Plus, I need the money, so I really tried hard to come up with anything to check that off the list.

It worked for the first quarter, barely. By the second one, I had nothing in the tank, and I was seriously flailing. At the time, I managed a small team, so of course, the edict went from me to them. Maybe I’m naive, but no one on my team gave it more than lip service, and what we were forced to do was an hour-long brainstorm right before the deadline. Needless to say, nothing earth-shattering came of that session of innovation on the gallows.

People point to Google and their 20% your time policy, which is truly an innovative solution, as the way to go. We’re trying to tap into that same feeling, with a dash of Open Source flavor, with the OpenLab project built around Connect. All the while, we tread lightly to make it clear that work must come first (duh), not to make sure the contributors know, but to make sure the manager’s have that safety blanket. But even the Google 20% has come under fire lately as the company grows, which ideas become projects and why, political machinations, hurt feelings, etc.

So what’s the answer? Personally, I think another Google practice might be the way to go, i.e. the flat org. I say less management makes for more innovation, not because managers are dumb (remember, I used to manage, q.e.d.), but because managers don’t focus on innovation. They focus on project plans and milestones as their objectives, which takes focus away from kickass, awesome, super cool and totally killer products customers will stand in line to buy.

Some people counter with arguments like people need discipline and schedules or nothing will ever get done. That may be true, but read a book like “Winning with Software” and you’ll get the same message I see every day. People want to do a good job, nay the best job they can. So, when you ask them for schedules, they come up with doable, but aggressive dates. Let them make the schedule, and they’re bought into it with a sense of pride and investment. Drive a date from an ivory tower, and you’ll get nothing but resentment and division with a side of slippage.
You won’t get innovation.

Layers of management are a function of accountability. As a company gets bigger and goes public, accountability becomes larger (to more shareholders and customers) as well and more stratified. Management adds layers of deniability, forcing each manager to follow the CYA theorem. If a milestone is missed, who’s fault was it?

I ask, if a milestone is missed, does it matter? Maybe. If the product is derivative and customers don’t want it, does it matter? Yes.

We can’t be too busy to innovate.


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19 Responses to “Too Busy to Innovate”

  1. Carl Backstrom Says:

    Hello,
    What stands out to me most is the product managers one question.

    >>
    PM: does it DO anything?
    >>

    I think inside the firewall with social networking that is the #1 question, where is the value added, what does it do, what can it do for me or my org?

    I’ve seen people with over 100 connections in their social network but where is the value added? In the worst case scenario a boss/manager might even wonder how much time a person has been putting into building that network instead of doing their job.

    Don’t get me wrong I think there is a huge place for Web 2.0 practices inside the firewall but getting any traction with it is going to be near impossible until you can answer that question and show the value added.

    Regards,
    Carl

  2. Carl Backstrom Says:

    Hello,
    What stands out to me most is the product managers one question.

    >>
    PM: does it DO anything?
    >>

    I think inside the firewall with social networking that is the #1 question, where is the value added, what does it do, what can it do for me or my org?

    I’ve seen people with over 100 connections in their social network but where is the value added? In the worst case scenario a boss/manager might even wonder how much time a person has been putting into building that network instead of doing their job.

    Don’t get me wrong I think there is a huge place for Web 2.0 practices inside the firewall but getting any traction with it is going to be near impossible until you can answer that question and show the value added.

    Regards,
    Carl

  3. Jake Says:

    Or is it that people have too much process-related, hoop-jumping to do that the threshold for other stuff is very high, even if there is a value-add?

    The value-add for Connect is what you do within the network, like click-to-call or direct IM or broadcast your experience and have it indexed, beyond just a phone number and org chart. As we add features, the value rises, but that’s not really the point.

    Why does everything have to be so selfish? What happened to just trying something new for giggles or just to do something new? Are we that jaded? And if so, how can we expect to do anything innovative?

    And again, where’s the trust? Why would I worry about how many contacts I have when I’m consistently producing kickass deliverables on time? Are we that small-minded? If that’s the case, I’m working 8 hour days and punching a time clock again.

    If you think there’s a place for 2.0 inside the firewall, where is it?

    Jake

  4. Jake Says:

    Or is it that people have too much process-related, hoop-jumping to do that the threshold for other stuff is very high, even if there is a value-add?

    The value-add for Connect is what you do within the network, like click-to-call or direct IM or broadcast your experience and have it indexed, beyond just a phone number and org chart. As we add features, the value rises, but that’s not really the point.

    Why does everything have to be so selfish? What happened to just trying something new for giggles or just to do something new? Are we that jaded? And if so, how can we expect to do anything innovative?

    And again, where’s the trust? Why would I worry about how many contacts I have when I’m consistently producing kickass deliverables on time? Are we that small-minded? If that’s the case, I’m working 8 hour days and punching a time clock again.

    If you think there’s a place for 2.0 inside the firewall, where is it?

    Jake

  5. gretchen alarcon Says:

    I agree this is a question of time allocation and incentives. While the incentives part is hard (as you mention above), the time allocation part helps. In a previous start-up, we declared No Meeting Wednesdays. It was amazing the amount of productivity and ideation that happened when the development team had a whole day open. Yes, they worked on deliverables, but without having the day chopped into meetings, they also had time to explore, which is key to innovation.

  6. gretchen alarcon Says:

    I agree this is a question of time allocation and incentives. While the incentives part is hard (as you mention above), the time allocation part helps. In a previous start-up, we declared No Meeting Wednesdays. It was amazing the amount of productivity and ideation that happened when the development team had a whole day open. Yes, they worked on deliverables, but without having the day chopped into meetings, they also had time to explore, which is key to innovation.

  7. Jake Says:

    Gretchen,
    I’ve heard that before, i.e. no meeting days, and that’s another great way to ensure stuff gets done.

    As usual, the hard part is taking that step and sticking to it.

    Jake

  8. Jake Says:

    Gretchen,
    I’ve heard that before, i.e. no meeting days, and that’s another great way to ensure stuff gets done.

    As usual, the hard part is taking that step and sticking to it.

    Jake

  9. Anne Zelenka Says:

    Seems like a bigco like Oracle might suffer from the innovator’s dilemma. It is very good at doing incremental improvement on enterprise apps and meeting the needs of current customers. Doing radical innovation isn’t necessarily going to meet the needs of those customers who just want this new feature or that performance improvement.

    So maybe you *can* be too busy to innovate — and successful big companies like Oracle are so busy meeting the needs of current customers that they are just that.

    Where’s the place for Web 2.0 and social networking behind the firewall then? I still suspect it’s in solving the really hard problems you come across when working on complex systems like enterprise apps. I’m not sure it’s so much about innovation — though that might be a side benefit — as just about problem-solving and being more effective in getting regular work done.

    As far as innovation in a big company goes, maybe the best place for it is it some sort of skunkworks type organization rather than sprinkled throughout every team. At least when I was at Oracle, we had so much to do that we knew about that innovation was not the top concern. We just needed to get features designed, coded, and tested then out the door. We needed to execute, not innovate.

    An aside: interesting point Carl made about if you have too many contacts your manager might start to question whether you’re being productive. Andrew McAfee wrote about the same issue in April.

  10. Anne Zelenka Says:

    Seems like a bigco like Oracle might suffer from the innovator’s dilemma. It is very good at doing incremental improvement on enterprise apps and meeting the needs of current customers. Doing radical innovation isn’t necessarily going to meet the needs of those customers who just want this new feature or that performance improvement.

    So maybe you *can* be too busy to innovate — and successful big companies like Oracle are so busy meeting the needs of current customers that they are just that.

    Where’s the place for Web 2.0 and social networking behind the firewall then? I still suspect it’s in solving the really hard problems you come across when working on complex systems like enterprise apps. I’m not sure it’s so much about innovation — though that might be a side benefit — as just about problem-solving and being more effective in getting regular work done.

    As far as innovation in a big company goes, maybe the best place for it is it some sort of skunkworks type organization rather than sprinkled throughout every team. At least when I was at Oracle, we had so much to do that we knew about that innovation was not the top concern. We just needed to get features designed, coded, and tested then out the door. We needed to execute, not innovate.

    An aside: interesting point Carl made about if you have too many contacts your manager might start to question whether you’re being productive. Andrew McAfee wrote about the same issue in April.

  11. Matt Moore Says:

    Jake,

    Check out this research by Teresa Amabile: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/89/creativity.html

    It backs up a lot of your points. I’d also recommend Bob Sutton’s 11.5 Weird Ideas That Work for further vindification.

    Managing for innovation is very different to managing for project results / service levels.

    Matt

  12. Matt Moore Says:

    Jake,

    Check out this research by Teresa Amabile: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/89/creativity.html

    It backs up a lot of your points. I’d also recommend Bob Sutton’s 11.5 Weird Ideas That Work for further vindification.

    Managing for innovation is very different to managing for project results / service levels.

    Matt

  13. Jake Says:

    Anne
    I remember this piece by Mr. E 2.0, and I am narrowly defining my comments to my experience with technology companies. However, as a whole, technologies companies demand more time and flexibility, therefore I think they are more lax about supposed time-wasters. Carl and I both work for Oracle, so my point applies equally to our experiences, i.e. if your manager thinks you have too many contacts on Connect, maybe you need to change groups because there’s no trust there.

    Matt: This is good stuff. Thanks.

    The overall problem as I see is that we don’t allow for structured creative time, which seems to be the only model that can work. I think if a policy of 1 hour per day was to be spent on creative projects or whatever (sleeping, I don’t care) the benefits would be huge. Morale would improve, even if innovation and creativity didn’t. People want to be trusted to do what’s right, and what’s wrong with indulging a little when you make people spend so much time on process and planning?

    Anyway, glad to have your thoughts.
    Jake

  14. Jake Says:

    Anne
    I remember this piece by Mr. E 2.0, and I am narrowly defining my comments to my experience with technology companies. However, as a whole, technologies companies demand more time and flexibility, therefore I think they are more lax about supposed time-wasters. Carl and I both work for Oracle, so my point applies equally to our experiences, i.e. if your manager thinks you have too many contacts on Connect, maybe you need to change groups because there’s no trust there.

    Matt: This is good stuff. Thanks.

    The overall problem as I see is that we don’t allow for structured creative time, which seems to be the only model that can work. I think if a policy of 1 hour per day was to be spent on creative projects or whatever (sleeping, I don’t care) the benefits would be huge. Morale would improve, even if innovation and creativity didn’t. People want to be trusted to do what’s right, and what’s wrong with indulging a little when you make people spend so much time on process and planning?

    Anyway, glad to have your thoughts.
    Jake

  15. davidhaimes Says:

    I have two thoughts:

    Firstly
    —-
    Enterprise 2.0 is tough. People have way too much to do anyway and want immediate benefits and a killer app before they are willing to spend time.
    —-

    Maybe more importantly it needs to have benefits and a killer app before people are prepared to pay us money for it and move our stock in the right direction.

    However, I agree with Jake about clocking in keeping our head down and clocking out. I’m still here after these years because there are plenty of people who take a step back now and again and think:
    Why are we doing this?
    Is there a better way?
    Do customers really want this product/feature?
    Wouldn’t it be cool to have the Oracle org structure in facebook?
    Isn’t that cool?
    I wonder how I could put that to work in my daily life?
    Product/feature? new startup company?
    Is it time to go to the pub yet?

    If we don’t think eventually somebody who does will figure out a way to automate the work we do and we will have all the time we need to think (and go to the pub).

  16. David Says:

    I have two thoughts:

    Firstly
    —-
    Enterprise 2.0 is tough. People have way too much to do anyway and want immediate benefits and a killer app before they are willing to spend time.
    —-

    Maybe more importantly it needs to have benefits and a killer app before people are prepared to pay us money for it and move our stock in the right direction.

    However, I agree with Jake about clocking in keeping our head down and clocking out. I’m still here after these years because there are plenty of people who take a step back now and again and think:
    Why are we doing this?
    Is there a better way?
    Do customers really want this product/feature?
    Wouldn’t it be cool to have the Oracle org structure in facebook?
    Isn’t that cool?
    I wonder how I could put that to work in my daily life?
    Product/feature? new startup company?
    Is it time to go to the pub yet?

    If we don’t think eventually somebody who does will figure out a way to automate the work we do and we will have all the time we need to think (and go to the pub).

  17. Jake Says:

    David brings up a good point. Because it’s so hard to get anything done (see here) it’s pretty easy to throw up your hands and walk. Just do your job, stay under the radar and punch that clock. It’s easier to do this now than it was in the past when RIFs were a yearly thing.

    I sez that’s just not good enough anymore. People are smart, not dumb, creative, not automatons. Find the outlet and do something cool. Otherwise, it’s just work, and you’re just crapping away a big percentage of your waking life.

    Good one.

    Jake

  18. Jake Says:

    David brings up a good point. Because it’s so hard to get anything done (see here) it’s pretty easy to throw up your hands and walk. Just do your job, stay under the radar and punch that clock. It’s easier to do this now than it was in the past when RIFs were a yearly thing.

    I sez that’s just not good enough anymore. People are smart, not dumb, creative, not automatons. Find the outlet and do something cool. Otherwise, it’s just work, and you’re just crapping away a big percentage of your waking life.

    Good one.

    Jake

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