At Opower, we recognize that our team members are as complex as our customers, and our ability to create brilliant products depends on our ability to reimagine what’s possible. That’s why, twice a year, we shut out the world and focus on harnessing our collective talent to improve everything Opower—these are our Innovation Days. Similar to hackathons and 20 percent time, they go even further to promote community, creative thinking, and freedom from organizational hierarchy.
Innovating, on the shoulders of giants
In recent years a lot has been made over Google’s approach to innovation—20 percent time dedicated toward projects that further the company mission—which was similar to the approach 3M took as far back as 1948 with 15 percent time. Before Google, HP was encouraging employees to use 10 percent time—after lunch on Fridays—to work on whatever they wanted.
Some amazing products have come from those companies and their approach to innovation outside of normal product initiatives:
- Gmail, AdSense, and Google Earth
- from 3M—a sandpaper with rearranged particles that easily cuts through metal, known as the Cubitron II
- one HP employee apparently used his 10 percent time to help invent HTML
These products revolutionized how people around the world go about their work.
The format of those innovation initiatives was generally geared toward employees with technical abilities, and the actual percent time was not always formalized, either. At Google, if you wanted to work on something, you just did—there was no paperwork, no manager approval.
Many other companies take a different approach to innovation by hosting hackathons—companies like Yahoo!, Foursquare, Salesforce, and Yelp. This approach encourages public participation in a contest to build on top of a company’s platform. Many awesome products have come out of these events over the years, as well.
What we’ve learned
As we continue to improve on our Innovation Days, we’ve gleaned a couple key insights from these giants of innovation:
- innovation can come from anyone and anywhere, and it’s up to us to recognize opportunity and champion it
- without facilitating a time and place for unconstrained work, it’s incredibly difficult for people to make innovation happen on their own time without support and encouragement
As such, our guiding principles are simple: remove constraints and facilitate.
Making time for what could be
The only rule of Opower’s Innovation Day is that folks must present their projects at our Innovation Fair—a science-fair style event where everyone gets to share what they worked on and check out other folks’ projects. The rationale, from a behavioral psychology perspective, is that when people publicly proclaim their intentions, they make themselves accountable to people who trust them to follow through. We want our team members to not only pursue their best ideas, but realize their ideas in ways that allow their projects to come to life for others.
To remove constraints:
- everybody is included, and people can work with whoever they wish on whatever they want
- internal meetings, client meetings, or other regular commitments are not allowed
And to facilitate:
- we’ve created a simple digital space for folks to share ideas and join in groups
- about a week prior, we run Pitchathons in each office where anyone can propose and share ideas
Working with participants across three offices in two countries has presented its share of challenges. For years, we tried coordinating the events so that kickoff and summary speeches coincided, but we realized that allowing each office to embrace its own time zone, location, and unique culture was the best way forward.