Encourage Innovation in the Workplace: Give Workers Free Rein

PollinateWe can’t plan for the social, environmental and economic challenges (or opportunities) in our future. The future, despite plans and predictions, is unknown. Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an author, speaker and leader in the fields of education, creativity and innovation. In his widely watched TED Talk, “Changing Education Paradigms,” Robinson asks; “how do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st Century given that we can’t anticipate what the economy will look like at the end of next week?” He goes on to show that the only viable answer is to design education around the goals of creativity and innovation.

Robinson’s question could just as easily be turned toward business. A recent report from MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group, “The Innovation Bottom Line,” finds five common practices among businesses that are profiting from sustainability initiatives. Two of these five practices are really different facets of innovation: “they’re prepared to change business models” and “they collaborate with people and groups outside their organization.” Triple bottom line businesses are innovators by definition, but what business practices encourage creative thinking and innovation on a daily basis?


Steve Jobs, one of our most celebrated innovators in business, said that “creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, describes how Jobs held weekly meetings without an agenda, holding time aside for kicking ideas around informally. Even physical space was considered, Jobs designed the Pixar buildings to encourage people from different departments to run into one another.

A Forbes article from 2010 also highlights the importance of physical space in promoting creativity and innovation. Ziba, a design research firm, says that “Our workspace…encourages the sorts of fortunate accidents that lead to new perspectives on vexing problems.” The workplace does not have private offices, individuals all have the same amount of personal workspace, over 50 percent of the floor plan is dedicated to collaborative space and unstructured workspaces like the library, media lounge, and terrace are available for group or solo work.

Many startups begin with just one person, or with a few people scattered across the country or world. The coworking trend is serving the cross-pollination needs of freelancers, business owners without employees and people working long-distance. Thomas Scott, a member of CoLab Nashville, says that a good coworking space is physically and culturally designed to encourage collaboration and interaction between workers.

Time to experiment

Google is known for their “20 percent” practice that gives engineers 20 percent of their work time to pursue Google related projects that they feel personally invested in. This means that one day a week engineers can sweep their desks of everything at the top of the company’s to-do list and engage with the project they are most excited about. Ideas like Gmail, Google News and employee shuttle buses have their roots in this 20-percent time.

National Public Radio (NPR) was inspired by what Google does and instituted a similar practice called Serendipity Day. Serendipity Day allows everyone in technology a day to work on whatever they choose. Sarah Lumbard, Vice President of Content Strategy and Operations at NPR, calls this “super-rapid prototyping.”

Read something

This is another way of saying we need time to think quietly and be exposed to ideas at work. An Inc. article about creating time to think says to “make reading a priority” since it slows us down and gives us time for inspiration. 37signals, a company that makes web-based apps for businesses and organizations, holds a monthly discussion about what people are reading. The founders of 37signals share some of their other unconventional and innovation focused business ideas in the book Rework.

When Maria Popova was working at an advertising firm, she sent out a regular email to her coworkers that included a diversity of cultural news and information, everything from “a new piece of research into biomimicry to a haiku by a Japanese poet.” Her coworkers and friends loved it and forwarded it to others. Today, this work newsletter has become Brain Pickings, Popova’s wildly popular blog.

We can start to plan for the future by supporting the creativity of sustainable innovators: employees, students, ourselves. How do you encourage innovation in the workplace? Please share your best practices in the comments.

[Image Credit: Brenda Anderson, Flickr]

Heidi Sistare is a freelance writer who just completed the documentary writing and multimedia storytelling program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. She holds a BA in Social Work from Warren Wilson College and has experience in non-profit management, community development and planning for small businesses.  


Heidi Sistare is a freelance writer who just completed the documentary writing and multimedia storytelling program at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. She holds a BA in Social Work from Warren Wilson College and has experience in non-profit management, community development, and planning for small businesses. Visit her website at: www.heidisistare.com

One response

  1. International assignments offers one of the best opportunities to foster innovation and creativity within an organisation. Companies can harness the assignees’ enthusiasm for the location by encouraging more interaction – more ‘random conversations’ as the article suggests – with local and other expat professionals. The professional growth of the assignee (that which they receive from their interactions at the office) is obviously important, but it is their personal interactions received from social and cultural interactions in the host community, which is the most likely to yield the necessary levels of creativity that can bring about game-changing innovations .

    Nichole Esparon
    Founder & CEO

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