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If You Cut Employees Some Slack, Will They Innovate?

  • Posted by admin on May 4, 2018

The idea of using slack resources — in the form of time, technology, and support — to bolster employee innovation falls in and out of favor. The return on slack innovation programs can be prodigious: 3M Co. attributes the development of the Post-it Note to its 1948 decision to allow employees to devote 15% of their paid time to side projects; and Google says its “20% rule,” which upped the ante on slack time devoted to innovation, yielded Gmail, AdSense, and Google Earth. But few, if any companies, have stuck with time off for innovation and other slack-based programs for as long as 3M. Even Google has reportedly waxed and waned in its commitment to its 20% rule.1

Given the significant investment that slack-based innovation programs require, the decision to adopt one shouldn’t be made off the cuff. But what are the factors underlying that decision and how should such programs be designed? To begin to answer these questions, we conducted in-depth interviews of knowledge workers in different industries to understand what motivated them to take risks and explore new ideas, and, more specifically, whether and how slack resources might have contributed to their innovativeness. We then created and refined an empirical model based on the factors and relationships that appear to influence employee innovation and tested it using a sample group consisting of 427 employees from North American companies.

We found that different types of employees respond in different ways to slack innovation programs; that different kinds of slack resources are better suited to certain types of employees than they are to others; and that different kinds of slack innovation programs produce different kinds of innovation. Companies can use these findings to design more effective slack innovation programs and maximize their returns on slack resources.

A Tale of Four Employees

Every employee is unique, but for the purposes of this research, we focused on two employee dimensions that are particularly relevant to innovation: level of job expertise and how innovative people consider themselves to be. This yielded four types of employees who form the boundaries of the workforce at large. (See “A Decision Tree for Designing Slack Innovation Programs.”)

  • High expertise, high innovation (HEHI): Employees who rank high in job-related expertise and in their personal assessments of their own innovativeness. They are curious and love to learn, particularly about technology, and they seek out new technologies.
  • High expertise, low innovation (HELI): Employees who rank high in job-related expertise and low in self-assessed innovation. They take refuge in their expertise, prefer stability in job processes, and dislike the idea of shifting to new technologies.
  • Low expertise, high innovation (LEHI): Employees who don’t have high levels of expertise but are eager to learn and try new technologies. Often, they are new to their jobs.
  • Low expertise, low innovation (LELI): Employees who don’t have high levels of expertise and aren’t comfortable with innovation and change.

These four employee types represent the extremes of our sample. Pure HEHI and LELI types represent only about 8% of employees each, and pure HELI and LEHI types represent about 1% each. The vast majority of the people in our sample group (359 of 427) fall somewhere in the middle: They are within a standard deviation of the mean on both expertise and self-assessed innovativeness. We believe that this is the norm for the typical workforce: lots of people in the middle, a few especially strong, a few weak (or new), and not very many “off-diagonal” oddballs (extremely high in one attribute, extremely low in the other).

Of course, workforces vary, too. We expect a company like Google LLC — an innovative organization in a technically complex industry — to skew toward the HEHI types while more conventional enterprises like oil companies or traditional carmakers would likely have more typical distributions of employees. Why does this matter? Because managing innovation (and the design of slack innovation programs) in a workforce that is disproportionately made up of HEHIs and people on their way to becoming HEHIs might be quite a bit different from managing innovation in a more typical workforce.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Perhaps the broadest conclusion that emerged from our research is that HEHI employees are different from the other three types of employees in terms of the management levers that encourage them to innovate.2 Motivational science helps explain why.

There are two different kinds of motivation that concern us: intrinsic motivation and social motivation. Intrinsic motivation is oriented primarily toward self-development, pursuit of one’s own interests, or self-fulfillment.3 Social motivation is oriented primarily externally, toward helping others.4 When motivated socially, employees may improve their own work practices, but they do it with an eye toward the impact the improvements will have on others or the organization and its mission.

In our sample, HEHI employees exhibited both intrinsic and social motivation. The motivations of the other three types of employees are more moderate. Non-HEHI employees have what appears to be an innovation confidence problem, perhaps because of their lack of expertise and/or an aversion to innovation. In terms of social motivation, they simply don’t consider it feasible that they could help others by innovating. Intrinsic motivation remains a possibility, but, as we will explain shortly, managing in ways that activate intrinsic motivation for these three types of employees is a more complex matter than just offering them slack resources.

Time, Tech, and Support Slack

This brings us to the question of which kinds of slack resources work best with what types of employees. There are three kinds of slack resources that can be applied to employee innovation: time, that is, paid time intended for innovation that is carved out of employees’ day-to-day schedules; technology, that is, access to hardware and software tools beyond those that employees need to do their regular jobs; and support, that is, access to the experts who can help employees pursue their ideas. The effectiveness of these three kinds of resources varies by the type of employee to whom they are given.

Time: Time may be the most common slack resource. Creativity research suggests that innovation does not often happen under pressure. Rather, producing something original requires doing something different from what you usually do, and that requires companies to subsidize time away from day-to-day work.

But does adding time slack actually enable most employees to produce innovations? Our results clearly show that adding this form of slack makes HEHI employees more innovative. Time slack programs send the message that innovation is important to the organization (in part by making it “safe” for employees to take time to explore) and thereby support and amplify the HEHI’s social motivation. Amplifying social motivation also diminishes the HEHI’s intrinsic motivation (by directing the inclination to innovate outward), but that doesn’t matter much because HEHIs are essentially on autopilot when it comes to the intrinsic motivation to innovate and because a more outward focus can remind HEHIs that they shouldn’t become isolated in their passion and should instead look for ways to connect their work to others’.

Adding slack time does not work that way for the other three types of employees. Because of their lack of expertise and/or their perceived lack of innovativeness, their social motivation to innovate does not increase when they are offered slack time. Our results show that adding slack time does amplify the intrinsic motivation to innovate in these employees to some degree (it is a confidence-enhancer). But time to innovate in and of itself is not enough to produce innovation among non-HEHI employees.

Technology: Adding slack in the form of extra technology that is not strictly required to do a job provides additional opportunities for employees to explore innovative ideas and take risks at a relatively low cost. In our interviews, subjects mentioned databases, enterprise applications, and cameras that simulate 3-D as some of the technological resources that their companies had provided to them.

We found that adding technological slack does little for employees who see themselves as highly innovative (HEHIs and LEHIs). But access to new technologies does help HELIs and LELIs become more comfortable with innovation. We don’t know why exactly; perhaps it’s because they see the added technology as a more reliable source of innovation than their own abilities.

Support: Support slack, the provision of technically expert support personnel, such as engineers or programmers, to help employees pursue innovation, came up often in our interviews. Interviewees told us that easy access to support personnel bolstered their confidence in their ability to overcome obstacles that arise during exploration and experimentation.

According to our analyses, support slack is very helpful to HEHIs. As with time slack, this may be because management’s decision to invest in extra resources sends a signal that innovation is important to the organization. That message bolsters their social motivation to innovate and their sense that it is safe to spend time on innovation.

Support slack also has a favorable impact on social motivation to innovate among HELIs, but because of their relatively low confidence, it does not translate into additional innovation. Support slack has no discernible effect on LEHIs, but it does bolster the intrinsic motivation of LELIs and is associated with a modest increase in their tendency to innovate.

Making the Most of Slack Innovation Programs

Our findings suggest six issues for companies to consider in designing and implementing slack innovation programs. As a further aid, we have also incorporated those suggestions into the decision tree at the end of this section.

1. Slack innovation programs are not one-size-fits-all undertakings. Unless you have at least as many HEHI employees as, say, Google, you’re not going to get the same bang out of a slack innovation program as highly innovative companies do. To be effective, slack programs must be tailored to the expertise and inherent innovativeness of the people who actually work for a particular company. Moreover, the impacts of such programs will be different among different categories of employees, so calibrate your expectations appropriately.

2. Encouraging employee innovation requires managerial support at all levels. Senior leaders make the decision to offer slack innovation programs. But it’s middle and front-line managers who must customize the allocation of slack and motivate employees to use it, based on their expertise and innovative inclinations. Democratize slack allocation decisions among these managers and ensure that they are supportive and in sync with slack innovation programs at every level.

3. Combine slack resources with appropriate motivational framing. Motivational framing is crucial to the success of slack innovation programs. When allocating slack for HEHIs, social motivation will be the most effective means of ensuring that they keep their heads up and see the big innovation picture. For the three other employee types, the most effective messages to bundle with slack are those that appeal to intrinsic motivation and position innovation as a means of personal growth and fulfillment.

4. Provide a “safe place to play” for employees who have low expertise and/or low self-assessed innovation. Employees who don’t have much expertise or don’t regard themselves as very innovative need verbal assurances and other slack resources to feel safe in their explorations. If such support is not available, slack programs aimed at those populations of employees will not spawn innovation. Create a playful environment that makes exploring and experimenting with ideas low-risk, cheap, and fast.

5. Employ the right kinds of slack for the right employees. Time and support slack can be bundled to create a reinforcing effect, while tech slack only helps employees with low self-assessed innovation. For HEHIs, time and support slack bolster social motivation; for HELI and LELI employees, time and support slack bolster intrinsic motivation by boosting confidence and safety. However, none of the three kinds of slack is particularly effective with LEHI employees. This may be because such employees tend to use slack resources to build their on-the-job expertise instead of pursuing innovation.

Managers also should note that people who start out as one type of employee can transform into another type as they gain expertise and elevate their perceptions of personal innovativeness. As a result, managing slack innovation programs is a dynamic and ongoing process.

6. Design slack innovation programs for the type of innovation you want. Adding slack can produce two types of innovation: internal innovations, which address work processes and deliver efficiency gains, and outcome innovations, which address process deliverables and directly affect customers. Offering slack resources to employees with low expertise and/or low self-assessed innovation typically results in internal innovation. Offering slack resources to HEHIs, however, is more likely to produce outcome innovations, such as new products. Thus, you should keep your company’s innovation needs in mind as you choose which employees to provide with slack resources and then seek to motivate those employees to deliver innovations.

Cut ’Em Some Slack

In 1959, Miles Davis, the legendary jazz trumpet player and band leader, brought six talented musicians into a New York City recording studio. Instead of asking them to play bebop, a complex style of jazz that pushed the limits of even the best players, he gave them much easier music. In doing so, Davis effectively freed up large swathes of their mental and musical capacity. You might say that he added slack, which, in turn, bolstered the group’s ability to innovate.5 The result was “Kind of Blue,” a masterpiece that pioneered a new kind of jazz called modal jazz. It remains, nearly 60 years later, the best-selling jazz album of all time.

Such is the potential payoff of adding slack resources to bolster innovation. But to realize that potential, leaders need to design, implement, and continuously manage slack innovation programs that match the needs of their workforces.


MIT Sloan Management Review

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