To Jump-start Innovation, Think Side Projects

What do mind-controlled cars and a fun new weekend-getaway search tool have in common? They started out as side projects for B-Reel. Here's how turning whimsy into process can pay off.

Sometimes companies make amazing things, like brain-controlled toy cars. What's more amazing?

The wonder-inducing racer started out as just side project. As Sean Blanda reports for 99u, production company B-Reel has built a process for bringing sparks of insight to market.

Check the method below.

Begin with the the "sparks"

Serendipity has a way of arriving unannounced. So when the muse shows up, you need to get the ideas down. That's why B-Reel keeps a company-wide Google Doc of any "sparks" that pop out of conversations.

And it's company policy that every idea, no matter how trivial it seems or how immature the market feels, gets documented.

Look for openings for improvement

Every week, B-Reel higher-ups search through the sparks for would-be projects. Blanda reports that they ask a few key questions:

  • Is it scalable?
  • Is there a market here?
  • Can it eventually help our clients?
  • Will it build buzz or press?
  • Can it become a stand-alone product?
Then they assemble an internal team to make the idea happen, often designers or developers with a little time between projects.

Next, the pitch

The team brings an "experiment suggestion" to a board of senior employees, like a small-scale venture pitch. Blanda notes that the board--which is rotating, by the way--checks against any groupthink that might crop up.

Get to testing

Experments gets two to three weeks and resources to get them tested and make evaluations. With the experiment finished, the company looks back at the original suggestion document to see how far the project's come and what they learned along the way. The postmortem has a few standard parts:

  • Did the firm gain knowledge?
  • Did a product emerge?
  • A chance for good press?
There's power in the method: Weekend getaway search engine Escape Flight emerged from the spark list, as did this avant garde video game.

What's the lesson here? Blanda encourages every organization to look for loose resources that could be repurposed for experimentation, as well as recognize what the experimentation does for the team:

At best, the team creates a product that can be shown to the world. At worst, the side project reinvigorates the team’s creativity.

And what if a company were all experimentation? Sounds pretty agile.

Sparks and Experiments: The Right Way to Manage and Execute Side Projects

[Image: Flickr user Pedro Moura Pinheiro]

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