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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Free Range Innovation

by Jarie Bolander

Free Range InnovationCowboys love the wide open plain. The vastness of the prairie ignites a self-reliance that few others can comprehend or handle. The cowboy is free to drive his cattle the route he feels best, yet his end game is always clear - get them to market. The cowboy struggles to keep his herd moving and might even loose a few along the way. His satisfaction comes when the herd is safely to market and the wage he earns hardly pays for his trouble but that does not matter - he's in it for the journey.

The Cowboys of Innovation

Innovators are like modern day cowboys that peer out onto the vastness of the world and chart a course to get their ideas to market. They do it for the love of the journey and the results of seeing something they invented being used by millions. Companies tend to fence innovators in by overburdening them people with process, procedures, arcane organizations and stifling bureaucracy. These conditions severely limit the creative mind to the point of stalling out any sort of innovation.

Wander Within Limits

The innovation cowboy needs to wander around and seek the best path forward. This means his organizational structure has to be flexible enough to wander yet sets limits to get to market. The best structure for this is the automatous team that has flexibility to get stuff done but has clear objectives and timelines. Guidance from the boss should be the high level goals and objectives not micro-managed tasks and rigidly defined parameters. Doing this allows innovators to chart their own course while still having some guidance.

Failure is Always an Option

Innovation is full of failure. So much so that most people can't stomach the constant setbacks and uncertain future. The ideal culture for innovators is one that embraces failure, learns from it and moves on. This culture will always out innovate a punitive structure where everyone is afraid to make one little screw-up. The other vital cultural trait is one where intellectual curiosity is encouraged, especially outside the companies field of endeavor. More innovative ideas have come from cross-over problem solving (i.e. Taking a solution from another industry and applying it to something else), then just staying within your companies comfort zone.

Bonuses Don't Work

The journey is the incentive for innovators to invent. No other incentive is as strong or as effective as working on a challenging problem that you enjoy. In fact, the open source movement has taught us that creative people will work for free and give away their work product for something they find interesting. The organization can apply these incentives by giving innovators a support and recognition network that allows them to invent, be recognized and feel respected. The only monetary bonus that seems to work is one that treats everyone the same (e.g. The janitor to the CEO gets 'the same bonus'). Anything other that than, is ripe for gaming and defeats the purpose of incentives.

Rugged, Yet Refined

Free range innovation is all about respecting the rugged innovator that takes on the world yet still delivers products to market. It's the realization that innovation takes flight when you give creative people the space to move, explore and grow. No fancy organizational structure, no complex cultures and no silly incentives - just smart teams, building innovative products by driving their ideas to market the way the range tell them too.

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Jarie BolanderJarie Bolander is an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature. Jarie blogs about innovation, management and entrepreneurship at The Daily MBA and has recently published his first book, "Frustration Free Technical Management". You can also follow him on Twitter @thedailymba.

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