When does productivity take a back seat to innovation? Does being hyper-focused on productivity actually slow down innovation efforts?

In my last blog on productivity and innovation, I described how productivity — much like innovation — cannot be effectively optimized without proper planning. But how much planning is too much? In the quest for innovation, should we abandon the strict confines of productivity to the back seat?

Risk and Reward

Peter Drucker suggests that strategic innovators define risks and seek to minimize them. Innovators are successful to the extent that they systematically analyze the sources of an opportunity. They pinpoint the opportunity, and then exploit it, whether it has a small and definable risk, or a larger but still definable contingencies.

In the 7 Sources of Innovation, Drucker found that many of the best innovations are developed through the unexpected, such as incongruities or conflicts, and changes in perception. Removing the overall focus on productivity results in increased innovation.

If the demand for productivity is applied too rigidly, the focus will be on improvements of the best practices, rather than innovation — and that can lead to narrow-minded bureaucracy. Let’s look at an example of a productivity-focused organization and the results of their approach.

Lessons from 3M

The innovation giant 3M is known for creating many world-changing products, from Post-it® Notes to Scotchgard™, Scotch® tape, and hundreds of other well-known commodities. But at one point, 3M’s innovation lab was rendered powerless.

In 2001, GE alum James McNerney took the reins as 3M’s CEO, introducing the Six Sigma set of process improvement techniques and tools. This working environment, with rigid five-year business plans and a strict adherence to control and hierarchy, was put in place across the organization — even in R&D. It was a disaster for innovation at 3M; with over-emphasis on productivity and entrepreneurial behavior, Six Sigma extinguished the innovation flame almost immediately, clearly showing the natural tension between productivity “control” versus innovative “freedom.”

According to some observers, Six Sigma put efficiency and innovation directly at odds, and their leadership in innovation was relinquished to Apple and Google. You may think as I did: how could the leadership let this happen?

If you worked at 3M and had access to world-class facilities, laboratories, and scientists, but were constrained by Six Sigma, imagine how much “innovation frustration” you would feel. For a business focused too tightly on productivity, the very thing they are attempting to solve — top line business growth and scaling of their enterprise — is destined to fail.

Their leadership team learned an expensive lesson, while skipping over an important part of Six Sigma: it was never intended to be used in R&D. At its core, it is about scaling up and improving manufacturing efforts. Had McNerney researched this methodology fully as it applied to manufacturing, he would have realized that Six Sigma leaves little, if any, room for creativity.

After McNerney’s departure in 2005, leadership loosened the Six Sigma initiative, returning to the former (and far more successful) 3M tradition. This allowed employees to spend 15 percent of their work time on independent research and ideas. The New Innovations page for 3M shows how they are primed to deliver leading innovation once again.

How to Stay Productive While Innovating

Research shows that people come up with their best ideas when they collaborate, ideate, and feed off of each other’s interactions and energy.

The thinking behind Marissa Mayer’s controversial work from home ban is a good example of a leader attempting to push for traditional collaboration in order to boost innovation. Clearly, as Yahoo’s CEO, Mayer understood the need for a balance between innovation, collaboration, and productivity when she said “[People are] more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.” Employees taking advantage of being hidden away at home and failing to be truly productive was killing innovation at Yahoo.

That said, although meetings are important for strategy alignment and collaboration around initiatives, they need to be limited. Groundbreaking innovation doesn’t just happen during scheduled meetings. It often happens during the ‘brain breaks’ that a purely productivity-focused environment does not allow. Pro tip? Put innovation first in your organization with designated blocks of time that are ‘meeting free’, enabling innovation to be a catalyst for productivity.

An Innovation-First Organization

To reap the total benefits of innovation and productivity, enterprise companies should balance organizational productivity structures and processes, while empowering an innovation-first culture. Top enterprises are no longer relying on yesterday’s processes to solve today’s productivity challenges. Rather, they are using agile innovation environments, increasing productivity while enabling their businesses to innovate faster.

Are you?