Taking Time Off to Benefit Innovation

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What a great idea it would be to be able to spend 10 percent of your time—or 15 or even 20 percent—away from your projects developing new ideas and focusing on projects of personal interest.

It turns out that the idea is hardly new. The company 3M launched a 15 percent program way back in 1948, and the now-ubiquitous Post-It Notes was one of the results. Many of 3M’s 22,800 patents resulted from this program. Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Google offer similar programs. Google Earth and Gmail, for example, resulted from Google’s 20 percent “time to innovate” program.

Instead of allocating a fixed percentage of the week or month, some companies allocate a finite period to innovation once or twice a year. Red Gate, a UK software company, implemented a company-wide initiative in which, once a year, everyone commits a week to doing something new, something that’s somewhat risky, or something that has been bugging them. Another technology company, DataXu, holds a semiannual innovation day during which employees can tinker with new ideas.

Although dedicated innovation days have become popular within the technology industry, other industries are jumping in. At Kayak, the online travel site, executives set aside a week for purposes of innovation. The University of Pennsylvania holds an annual three-day event in which IT employees post ideas and recruit collaborators. On the third day, participants give presentations on what they’ve achieved.

Like any program, there are pros and cons. Many employees find the program energizing and motivating, and the promise of time to innovate helps in recruitment. But it can be difficult for employees to shift focus when their existing deadlines are looming. In addition, some managers fear that employees will spend the time playing video games and taking extended lunches. Other managers expect immediate results.

If the program is going to work, it’s especially important that employees believe and see evidence that the results they achieve will get some attention. At the same time, there has to be a tolerance for failure or at least the awareness among management that much of the effort will generate little real value. The thing is, there are exceptions. As they say at 3M, you never know where the next Post-It Note will come from.

Among the recommended steps for getting started with such a program are deciding what amount of time to devote to it, making participation voluntary, and tracking all projects. After all, projects that don’t generate useful results initially might be worth pursuing some time later.

What’s your company’s experience—positive or negative—with programs that allow down time to innovate?

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.