If employees innovate a product or service, does it matter if it was approved or not?

When I was editing our magazine’s Uniquely Cleveland about a “jungle” of fiberglass animals that a Mentor company set up in its parking lot, it reminded me how probably every leader probably has a pet project. The leader who had the menagerie took the whimsical route, providing an escape from reality for company employees and visitors.

But he also showed his flair to be different — even innovative, if you will — and that sets an example for his employees to think out of the box.

One of our Smart Business columnists recently offered this question:

“When you discover an employee working on an unauthorized pet project, what will you do?”

While you may not know it, innovation is taking place in your company as you read this. Your workers are using new technologies to accomplish tasks faster. Maybe they are creating macros in your word processing program to speed document production, or maybe an employee has devised a way to produce an item in batches, rather than individually.

After all, you have been encouraging them to innovate, so why not? However, in many companies, that kind of innovation comes as a result of employees spending their own time to research and create.

Here is one of the most powerful anecdotes about an unauthorized project that became a major advancement.

The Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla was working for Thomas Edison. Tesla insisted on creating a power distribution system for alternating current, but Edison favored his direct current, lower-voltage system, which was already in use at some locations. After Tesla had made quite a bit of progress, he and Edison feuded over the advancements and Tesla broke away. Westinghouse Electric acquired Tesla’s patents for $1 million and popularized a superior alternating current system, now in use.

Edison’s direct current system lost out, and the incident is known as the War of the Currents. Edison chose to punish the unauthorized project.

Have you thought about what you might do with unauthorized innovation that happens right under your nose?

Tesla’s story should give you pause. As with many issues, there are ethical questions and no good answers.


Dennis Seeds is editor-at-large of Smart Business magazine.