When nobody is looking over your shoulder: how bootleg projects can promote innovation


bootleggingIt can go horribly wrong when employees take too much initiative and do the things that they deem right without senior management endorsement. Many of you may remember the commotion around a Ford advert in India that showed Berlusconi at the wheel of car with women tied up in the boot. The timing, around several serious instances of rape prominent in the news several days before, was more than unfortunate… Both Ford and WPP, the advertising group whose employees had created the ad, had to apologize, even though Ford had never commissioned the ad and the management of WPP had never reviewed it. The ad was the result of the individual initiative of a group of employees who deviated from the standard procedures of their employer. They were fired after the ad appeared on the web (link).

Confining yourself to the tasks that your employer expects you to work on may in most cases be a clever and safe option. However, particularly when it comes to creativity and innovation, it may sometimes be necessary to go beyond the expectation of your employer and work on things you have not been asked to work on, or even on things you have been asked not to work on. This behaviour is what we call bootlegging. Originally that word was used to describe the act of smuggling alcohol in boots, during US Prohibition. But in innovation management it has come to stand for individuals’ efforts on innovation projects on their own initiative, and without managerial permission.

Proactively making the time to explore new ideas on your own initiative and without your boss knowing gives you the freedom to explore unusual directions that may give rise to radical new ideas, good or bad. Without anyone looking over your shoulder, you feel free to experiment and go against conventional thinking. It also helps that managers won’t discard your idea as too radical before they have even given you the chance to prove its merits. Some innovations have only seen the light of day, because individuals disobeyed managerial decisions to abandon certain projects and continued to work on them “underground”. Because they believed in it, they risked their careers and secretly worked on illegitimate projects.

A classic example is BMW engineer Paul Rosche. In the 1980s BMW explored the possibility of building a V12 engine – something much bigger than the company had ever built – and use it to re-enter the world of motorsport in partnership with McLaren. Since their motorsport adventure in the early 1980s was not particularly successful, BMW formally abandoned the project in 1987, but engine expert Paul Rosche did not give up. He continued to work on the project underground, eventually convincing management to re-enter motor sport in 1995. There followed two Le Mans victories, which strengthened BMW’s reputation as a sports car maker. Ultimately, many aspects of the engine’s innovative design also found their way to engines of their regular models (link).

So evidently sometimes it pays to bootleg and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a very risky employee behaviour. The benefits when successful can be large but the costs when gone wrong can be disastrous… So when does bootlegging help individuals to successfully generate innovations for their company?  Together with colleagues at Imperial College Business School I carried out a study to find out. We set up interviews and a large-scale survey of around 400 senior R&D scientists and engineers in a large multinational company, unnamed to maintain confidentiality…

The first thing that struck us, was that bootlegging is actually quite common… Everyone in this company is required to keep track of how they spend their time across all projects they are formally assigned to work on. But, somehow, on average, the scientists and engineers found around 10% of their working time to dedicate to bootleg projects. We found that, in general individuals engaged in bootlegging were more innovative. However, the success they obtained from bootlegging in large part depended on their work environment.

It appeared that in units where “working by the rules” was a strict norm, bootlegging was unlikely to be successful. Some units were operating under a strict regime because they had performed badly in recent years and therefore monitored their staff more closely. Individuals in such units, who nevertheless engaged in bootleg projects, had great difficulty in turning these into successful innovations. In other units abiding by formal rules and procedures would not be as rigidly enforced. It was in such environments that individuals found colleagues who also undertook bootleg projects and were better able to reap the fruits of their underground work.

So what do we learn from this? Should companies provide free time to employees to explore their own projects? No, perhaps it is the “nature of the forbidden fruit” that makes bootlegging so alluring and that incentivizes those scientists and engineers who believe in their path-breaking ideas to explore them beneath the surface. Organizations should not change the rules and promote bootlegging behaviour, but tolerate it of those individuals who judge it worth the risk.


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Image source: http://exhibitions.library.temple.edu/exhibits/prohibition/viewpage.jsp?img=03


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