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When Innovating Go SlowThe tangled history of innovation reveals a peculiar lesson: Slow is often better than fast.  The current assumption is that innovation at its best hits like a hurricane.  … [Instead,] entire systems rarely spring forth fully formed.  Drones or robot-controlled aerial vehicles, for instance, seem to have emerged suddenly …. Yet drones have a long historical tail.  Hot-air balloon “drones” were used in the French Revolutionary Wars. … Slow innovation doesn’t mean no innovation.  What looks to some like an innovation drought may instead be a period of yet-to-be appreciated innovation already under way.  G. Pascal Zachary, When Innovating, Go Slow, IEEE Spectrum, April 2013.

About 20% of my day was dedicated to managing my department or projects.  The other 80% I spent talking to people and digging into data and building mashups of systems so that I could get and analyze the information I needed.  During this ongoing research and discovery, I would inevitably stumble across small invisible teams doing great things off in the periphery of the company.

See also the importance of supporting pockets of excellence.

In both these cases, my research and the small team’s efforts, we were out innovating — usually by a lot of trial and error.  The fact that most of our time was spent in this innovative cycle would have irked our bosses, who who have expected us to spend the bulk of our time on our current tasks and maybe, at best, 20% of our time on off-task innovative activities.

Well, at least in my case, the reason I only needed to spend 20% if my time managing is because I had previously spent all that time (usually midnight hours and weekends) developing the insights and tools I needed to do my job in only a fraction of the time it took my predecessors.  Once I got on top of my job, I still invested that free time in further investigations and innovation (but  less midnight hours).  This was because our “sudden innovations” that we would have in the future would come out of those hours.

I would not personally use the guidance of “when innovating, go slow.”  Instead I would recommend “when innovating, get going now.”  The innovation cycle is generally fast and furious, if not always visible.  The time we spend on innovating will pay dividends in the future, but only if we are working on it today.

More on how innovations come into being.

Is a significant portion of your time spent on innovating or is it all spent on just getting the normal daily work done?

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