16
May
10

The Innovation Sandbox: Play by the Rules or Go Home!!

The old sandbox of your youth had rules. Some of them were written and some weren’t, but you knew them all the same. Throw sand, steal a toy, or push someone out-of-the-way and you knew you were in trouble. Fighting or not playing nice would also earn you a trip home.

The Innovation Sandbox needs its rules as well. The IS rules need to:

  • Align activities with the company’s overall goals;
  • Define how much freedom there is to experiment and play;
  • Make it clear how resources will be allocated; and
  • Expectations for the outcomes from the Innovation Sandbox.

The rules inside — and the boundaries around — the Sandbox create a place where creativity and exploration can be engaged to build innovation throughout the organization.

The Innovation Sandbox actions must align with the overall goals in the company. The rules should be set in a way that the activities in the Sandbox work towards the overall goals within the company. This is the most difficult part of the rule setting because innovation requires freedom to act creatively and freely, and the natural tendency of the organization is to restrict action to safe activities that protect the status quo. The Sandbox needs protection from the status quo and space to act energetically on great ideas. It must also align those actions with the overall corporate goals – a difficult assignment.

Freedom to play and create is critical in order to foster breakthrough innovation. The Sandbox is a place created to encourage experimentation, play, and learning. People should feel free to try new things and act on their ideas without fear of reprisal or career consequence. Freedom does not mean anarchy or a lack of accountability. It means the ability to act aggressively and creatively within the guidelines set out in the rules. The rules lay out the way individuals interact and how individuals and teams will be held accountable.

Defining the boundaries allocated the overall resources available for the innovation effort. Just like rules dictated how the toys would be shared in your old sandbox, rules in the Innovation Sandbox dictate how resources will be allocated between the individual efforts. The allocation should not rely on traditional committees and stage gate processes, but rather organic processes that reward projects with energetic and active participants. When set up correctly, the process rewards projects making the best progress and attracting the most followers: Projects with the most momentum and the best chance of success.

Finally, the outcomes expected from the Innovation Sandbox should be clear to everyone involved. It will be extremely difficult to manage those outcomes on a project-by-project basis, but the entire project portfolio can and should be reviewed periodically for progress against expectations. The reviews should look at systemic issues that block innovation and progress. The natural tendency is to look at individual projects and decide which ones will live and which ones will die. Instead, it is much more important and appropriate to build and reinforce a system that fosters creativity and innovation.

Clear rules for activity in the Innovation Sandbox set up an active and vital system for continuous innovation. Engaging the organization around the Innovation sandbox will make a huge impact.

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