Innovation demands space and time

Box pushing other boxes out of the way

I love painting to make art, but I hate painting the walls of a house. Painting a room is all about efficiency. I want the task finished as fast as possible, so jumping right in would seem like the quickest way forward. Not exactly. Painting a room quickly requires upfront prep work. It feels tedious to lay down drop cloths, tape edges, and place materials within reach. But the cost of time and energy to prep is worth it.

If you’ve prepped a room before painting it, you’ve discovered that making space upfront for prep work improves the process and the outcome, even if it doesn’t feel efficient. 

The feature development process has many parallels to painting a room. Companies want to make money, so they desire cross-functional teams to move as quickly as possible. But like painting, there are vital points in the process that seem to take longer but yield better and more effective results.

Making space for designers to play

Often there isn’t space allocated in project timelines for ‘taping’ or the prep work. The expectation is for designers to develop a viable solution quickly. Unfortunately, this only gives time to execute a solution but not explore the opportunity. When there is no room for exploration, the outcome isn’t great. Unlike painting, in feature development, getting messy early moves things along in the future and leads to better results.

Designers are more likely to pursue different paths forward when given space to think and explore. These paths open up new doors and connect existing ones. The focus should not solely be on efficiency but rather effectiveness. Many approaches aren’t viable or even ‘good,’ but they can spark new ideas and conversations. These conversations are vital in creating integrated and innovative work. Efficiency for the sake of it can lead to features that are duct-taped onto existing products. 

Teams need space to breathe

Farman street put it best in a recent post about slack

“It’s possible to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack. It’s also possible to make an organization a little less efficient and improve it enormously. In order to do that, you need to reintroduce enough slack to allow the organization to breathe, reinvent itself, and make necessary change.”

When the focus is only around efficiency, we miss opportunities that lay before us because we are too focused on getting things done, not making impactful change.

Creating space to breathe, imagine, and rethink

One of my favorite stories around rethinking the status quo is the creation of Kingsford Charcoal. In this story, asking questions and looking at a problem in a new way opened up a huge opportunity.

Ford Charcoal Briquets

Henry Ford was experiencing massive success with the creation of the Ford Model T. The production line that built these vehicles took a large amount of energy and fires to fuel it. As an avid camper, Ford had the problem of not having dry wood to start fires with. Ford was a big advocate of reusing and recycling, and he realized that he had a significant opportunity right in front of him. 

The Ford plant produced large amounts of charcoal from fueling the production line. Instead of wasting this ‘garbage,’ Ford decided to build a business. Ford began to package the leftover charcoal and sell it as a product. Kingsford Charcoal was born, which is still in business today. It took time and space to breathe, ask questions about the business, and look for creative improvements. It is worth time to examine things.

Read more about the story of Kingsford Charcoal.

It’s time to create space

If you are a leader, ask yourself: “am I giving my people enough time to explore?” And if you are an individual contributor, start asking for that time. Then, show off what you can do with the time: Share your ideas, share your thinking, connect products, and build some great things!