I always cringe a little inside when I hear someone say, “You can’t innovate on schedule.”
While it’s true that no one can predict exactly when someone will come up with a breakthrough idea, it’s also true that the idea may never come without something pulling for it. First-time novelists struggle for many reasons, but chief among them is that there is no deadline for the first book. No publisher will consider it until it’s finished. There is no pull — so the writer needs to find ways to create it.
The best and most productive writers, composers and artists have learned that creation is easier when the artist has a regular, protected schedule for studio time. Without that structure it’s harder to get into the right mindset for the ideas to come.
Creative People Know This
Michaelangelo created his masterpieces on tight schedules given the materials and methods of his day, working long hours to finish commissioned works so that he could be paid. William Faulkner said, “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes at nine every morning.”
Open any popular book on how to write, and you’ll find encouragement to create a weekly or even daily writing practice. In “NaNoWriMo” writers undertake the challenge to write an entire 50,000 word novel — about as long as the 1st edition of The Shortest Distance — in the month of November, a rate of about 1,700 words a day, or 1.5x the length of this article. Not much of that work gets published but that’s not the point — it encourages the novelists to try new things and experiment with ideas that might lead to their next published work.
If you want to be creative, you can’t wait for inspiration to strike. You need to dedicate time to it, which opens up space for inspiration.
Deadlines Pull Inspiration
For writers, it’s publishers’ deadlines. For visual artists, it’s gallery shows that need to be populated with new works. For fashion designers, it’s the cycle of selling seasons for new clothes. For performing artists of all kinds, it’s Opening Night.
These “pull events” force us to choose among all of the different possibilities to settle on the things that we will do. They place boundaries on the time that can be spent pursuing new ideas vs. sifting through and fleshing out the good ideas that have already emerged. They limit available time to force convergence on a solution.
In the Rapid Learning Cycles framework, we have pull events in the form of Learning Cycle Events, which pull knowledge creation and capture at the end of a Learning Cycle, and Integration Events, which pull Key Decisions at the Last Responsible Moment. These deadlines encourage Key Decision and Knowledge Gap owners to drive their work to completion, by limiting the available time.
Knowledge Work Expands to Fill the Available Time
If I give my staff two days to research a topic, they’ll take two days. If I give them a week, they’ll take a week. If I give them six months, they’ll take six months (but do most of the work in month six). Without a deadline, I may never get any results.
A timebox is a fixed period of time for getting a piece of knowledge work done. I first encountered this idea in a book by Steve McConnell: Rapid Software Development, and it’s become a hallmark of Agile methods like Scrum because it works so well. Timeboxes contain knowledge work the way a tank contains gas to hold it under pressure.
Timeboxes ensure that I don’t get a four-week analysis of a problem that was barely worth two days of time. They set up guardrails so that an innovation team doesn’t spin out endless ideas without maturing any of them. They provide a team with clear expectations about the level of work needed to get to the next step without overanalysis.
Scale the Size of the Timebox to the Work
Innovation teams need small timeboxes for exploring ideas. The amount of exploration needed to qualify an idea without an investment decision should be small, maybe four weeks if the team is looking at more than one idea at a time.
Once the decision has been made to continue, the next timebox should only be a little longer, to mature the idea a little more, perhaps twelve weeks. Then the next one might be for six months, with at least three Integration Events along the way.
By the third round, the idea has probably matured enough to enter the normal process for executing an idea, whether it’s a new product development effort or a process redesign initiative. By then, the organization should be ready to take the calculated risk to formalize it, because the group has had ample opportunity to find and eliminate the failures.
Failure Must Be an Option
In the early phases of innovation, failure must be an option. Sometimes inspiration doesn’t come; sometimes the ideas that do come are not feasible for a variety of reasons. Some writers, including me, have days when we throw away more than half of what we’ve written the day before.
Without a timebox, it’s hard to admit sometimes that an idea is not a good one. The temptation is to keep working it to try to find something valuable in it. People get attached to their ideas, and the more time they spend, the stronger their attachment becomes. Timeboxes force the bad ideas to surface faster, before people have spent so long on them that they’ve become pets.
It needs to be OK in the early phases to get to the end of a timebox and say, “I got nothing.” Sometimes the answer is to move on to something else, and sometimes it’s to dig deeper. Either way, at least the innovation team’s leadership is clear on where things truly stand, so that they can make a clear Go / No Go decision and set a firm date for launch.
Timeboxes Accelerate Ideas Through Early Development
Innovation teams need timeboxes in early development whether or not there is a target launch date. Early innovation work is too far removed from the launch date to feel much urgency. Timeboxes provide that urgency.
Some innovative products won’t experience much pull from customers until the product has demonstrated its value. Some won’t experience much pull from the business until the team has a viable business model. Timeboxes provide pull even when all of the other sources of pull are lacking.
If You Want to Get Innovation Done Faster, Put It In a Timebox.
If you don’t put your innovation teams on a schedule, you may never have an innovation to launch. Instead, use timeboxes to provide the urgency and pull to accelerate innovation.