Role of Side Projects in Innovation

My 2,600 word article for The American, a publication of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, came out today. It's on the role of side projects in innovation. It draws upon examples such as 3M, Google, Apple, the Founding Fathers, and music band Metallica. Here's the conclusion:

Figuring out innovation—how to come up with a killer new idea and then execute it—has long been an obsession of entrepreneurs and the academics and journalists who study them. One of the great myths of the innovation process, often reported in the popular press, involves a creative genius experiencing a “eureka moment,” refining the golden idea, and then pursuing it toward blockbuster status.

Successful side projects and the policies that nurture them somewhat deflate this myth. First, they highlight the random circumstances that can give rise to important inspiration. Second, they promote experimentation—not abstract brainstorming—because the “aha!” moment does not always happen at the outset, as mythologized, but somewhere in the middle of the process. Third, they underscore not the mad, brilliant scientist at the top but the collective brainpower of all employees, especially those close to the customer—Richard Drew at 3M, Paul Buchheit at Google. These people are critical to sustaining innovation over the long term.

Most of all, side project successes serve as a reminder that when you try more stuff than the next guy, up go the odds that you are going to do something right. It is the law of large numbers in entrepreneurship. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "It is amazing how much may be done if we are always doing." And as Jefferson later learned, it is amazing what can come of some of the things we least expect, which is good reason to always keep that crackpot project bubbling on the side and to stay open-minded about what it might one day become.

Do read the whole thing.

7 comments on “Role of Side Projects in Innovation
  • Good excerpt; full article in the to-read queue. In your blog intro, I’m fascinated by the idea that your audience is SO biz-world-absorbed that it’s necessary to provide ‘music band’ as a descriptor for Metallica. =)

  • Hi Ben,

    Have been following your ideas for a while, first time commenting.

    Read the article on Why do you think some companies refuse to engage in this kind of approach even when they have the ability to do so? Is fostering this kind of corporate culture industry specific?

  • Much ado is being made about Bo, the new four-footed addition to the White House. But did you know that Thomas Jefferson had a pet mockingbird that followed him around the White House?

  • Ben – Great post and article (well worth the full read).

    This is a fascinating topic that relates to what I think is the core challenge of trying to manage for innovation—how to provide structure/process to optimize an inherently random thing. I like this concept of “side-projects” because it’s an example of one of the best ways to try to engineer innovation. That is the application of current expertise to a tangential problem (or vice versa).

    In his book, How Breakthroughs Happen, Andy Hargadon calls this recombinant innovation. The book also challenges the notions of the “sole genius” and the “eureka moment.” His point is that breakthroughs actually happen with teams and iteratively. I’d suggest not only trying more stuff than the next guy, but try more stuff in different spheres. That way the likelihood of recombinant innovation is increased.

    Keep up the good work!

    ~Cody (long time reader, first comment)

    PS: I drafted this comment on Sunday. Procrastiflation at work!

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