Why Innovation Inside Starts Outside

Why Innovation Inside Starts Outside

Five years ago I joined the company whose UK operation I now run, with a special mission. To take the side project that I had been cultivating and bring it front and centre. The PR agency Hotwire thought I could bring some benefit to the company, our clients and people, by innovating from the inside - by setting up a startup within an established international company.

That was my side project, and everything else is history. We launched 33 Digital, one of the first social media agencies. The brand is now expanding globally after a successful incubation in the UK. Its clients already include Microsoft, Red Bull, Pearson and Telefonica.

The fundamentals behind all this were critical though, and still are. Side projects are more than OK for people in full time jobs - they are very important. I spent my first few years here encouraging everyone around me to have side projects. One colleague I brought in even won an industry award for the side project he put his time into. So I feel passionate about the need to have side projects when holding down a full time job.

So when I read this article in the Harvard Business Review, the headline grabbed me. Then the strange writing style, lack of depth and format made me want to dig a bit deeper, reading more here and here, further articles on the same topic by the same authors.

Here at Hotwire and at 33 Digital we actively encourage side projects. Across the board we invest a portion of our time to them, in work time. And in 33 Digital we call it our labs. We give people time on work hours to help charities, test things and innovate, and we reward people for innovation. To read in one of these HBR pieces that side projects could be a sackable offence is tough reading. But then again, every workplace is different. Each to their own.

What I'm getting at is, in the 12 years I've spent working in communications, from in-house to agency-side, across all sectors and all disciplines, I can't remember anywhere that had a mandate to foster and harness innovation through side projects. Whereas now, the way things have developed, when an applicant displays a lack of side projects in their CV, it appears positively disappointing to me.

A balanced team of course requires a mix of traits and skills amongst team members. You need the highly organised as well as the highly innovative. But without side projects we will have no innovation and a much duller workplace to exist in.

Side projects are also now the in thing. Look at Codecademy and Do Nation as examples. Look at the surge in co-working spaces where employees can get stuck into side projects and listen in on tangential conversations - places like TechHub, General Assembly and corporate incubators like Telefonica's Wayra.

Work is so much more effective and successful with side projects if you ask me, not just more fun. It is the future.


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