Everything I Need to Know About Innovation I Learned in Sandboxes

Remember Sandboxes?

Girl in SandboxThey were great places to play as a kid and are terrific teachers for what we need to know as adults to pursue and encourage innovation. Here’s what they taught us:

Boundaries. When Mom or Dad told us to play in the sandbox, we knew exactly where they meant. Our innovation efforts need the same definition: Where can I play with my best ideas to see if they work?

Rules. Every sandbox has rules – some written and some understood. We knew that if we threw sand or stole someone’s toy, we were in trouble. Innovation efforts need the same type of rule structure.  Allow the freedom to create and try new things, and define where the freedom ends.

Creativity. The sandbox was a place where we could try out our greatest ideas. Nothing was too far-fetched to try in the sandbox. The same Sandboxshould be true of our innovation efforts in the adult world.

Natural Teams. The best ideas always drew the biggest crowds in the sandbox. Build something new, exciting, or audacious and there were always plenty of people ready to help! The same can happen with our innovation efforts now. The best ideas will attract the most believers…naturally…without a corporate edict or assignment to the team. Good people like working with promising ideas.

Free Failure. We could always try new and risky things in the sandbox, because we knew that we could always learn from our mistakes and try again. The castle moat sprung a leak? The next time it was reinforced. A bridge collapsed under the weight of a truck? Sticks formed the girders for the next edition. Free failure and recovery is a part of great innovation efforts.

Excitement and Energy. Sandboxes always created excitement and energy because we knew that we would have fun and that the only real limitations were in our imagination. It’s just as exciting to work on new ideas in the real world. People want to work on ideas that have the potential to change a product, a person, or even the world! Our task is to provide the territory where those ideas can flourish and grow.

Kid in SandboxCompanies’ innovation efforts need sandboxes in order to succeed. The initial size of the sandbox doesn’t matter, but it needs to be a place where people can pursue their best ideas in a safe zone. The idea is to support ideas that have followings and make many small investments, rather than a few large bets. The broader support enables the best ideas to rise to the top of their own accord.

Companies should engage their people in innovation efforts, creating energy and excitement throughout the entire organization. They could do worse than remembering the sandbox of their youth!


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August 2009
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