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Stop Working and Start Innovating: It can Pay off

Companies like Google and 3M give tech workers free time to follow their passions. Could it work for your organization

If you've used a Post-it note lately or sent a message from a Gmail account, you've been the beneficiary of a corporate innovation program that gives employees time to be creative -- and, while they're at it, sometimes invent products that go on to become wildly popular.

Google is well known for its "20% time," which gives employees a day a week to follow their passions, but it's hardly the first company to have such a policy. For decades, 3M has allowed employees to devote 15% of their time to innovation -- a policy that led to the creation of the now-ubiquitous yellow sticky note, among other products.

Dan Pink, author of the best-selling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says hard numbers on corporate innovation programs are difficult to come by, but interest is on the rise. "I do know that more organizations are looking at the companies that are doing it and that it's becoming more popular."

Why? Because otherwise, innovation doesn't happen. "The CEO may say innovation is one of the company's top three priorities," says Doug Williams, a Forrester Research analyst, "but there's always something happening in the short term that pushes the long-term innovation off."

When innovation gets postponed for too long, companies languish -- witness RIM's reversal of fortune and Microsoft's vilification in the mainstream media for its failure to innovate. "Innovation programs remove the constraints that accompany traditional work and offer a safe space for failure," Pink says. "That lets people try riskier things."

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