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."
Time off Pros and Cons
Sometimes known as innovation time off, or ITO, creativity programs aim to battle stagnation in multiple ways. For one thing, by giving employees the freedom to explore and be creative, they can improve morale and help make individuals more productive in their day-to-day work. And when inspiration strikes, the end result can be a product or internal tool that boosts companywide productivity, increases revenue or both.
Creativity programs also represent a new way to help retain employees in today's competitive labor market. "The old motivational techniques have run their course," says Pink. "We've oversold the carrot-and-stick and undersold quieter forms of motivation."
"It's energizing for employees to take a break from their day-to-day business and think creatively about solving other problems or using technology in a different way," says Williams. "Employees recognize it as something valuable."
None of which is to say there aren't downsides to such programs. For some managers, it's hard to let staffers spend even an occasional half-day on an outside project without expecting immediate results. For employees, it can be hard to shift focus and take up something amorphous when real-world deadlines loom.
But some people who have participated in such programs say the potential for positive results is worth it.
"When I started here, one of the first things I heard was that the IT department had lots of ideas, but few saw the light of day," says Mamatha Chamarthi, vice president and CIO of business technology solutions at Consumers Energy, an electric and natural gas utility in Jackson, Mich. "Having a 20% program lets ideas bubble up," she says. "Sometimes you need to unleash a grass-roots level of passion to generate more innovative and transformational changes."
How Much Time Is Enough?
When setting up an innovation program, one of the hardest decisions to make is how much time should be devoted to it. There is little consistency on this score among organizations that have such programs. The time allotted ranges from a few days per year to one day each quarter to one day per week.
One thing is clear: Because Google's program is so well known, "20% time" has become something of a guiding principle for the way innovation initiatives should be structured, but that's a gold standard that not many employers are able to match. "Some companies simply don't have the luxury to give employees 20% of their week to work this way," says Williams, noting that 10% -- about an afternoon each week -- may be more reasonable.
And even less-frequent programs can deliver tangible results.
Take the Innovation Days program at the University of Pennsylvania, which was created by Robin Beck, the school's vice president of information systems and computing, to give employees a chance to come up with IT-related improvements of their choice.
"We want to foster innovation and creativity, but the day-to-day reality of delivering IT gets in the way," Beck explains. Officially setting aside time for such efforts shows that innovation is a priority.
The twist? Exploration Days is a three-day event that takes place just once a year. The process begins with IT staffers posting ideas and, if interested, recruiting collaborators on an Exploration Days wiki. Teams and individuals work on their projects on one of two days (in order to provide flexibility). On the third day, dubbed Report Out Day, there's an ice cream social and participants give presentations about what they've achieved.
Beck and her team considered both monthly and quarterly programs before deciding to start with an annual event. The first took place in August of 2011, and a second one was held this summer.
Participation isn't mandatory, but Beck reports that most of her 300 employees participated last year, and last year's projects have born fruit. One team tackled the problem of configuring students' personal devices for the university's wireless network. It developed a simpler process that saves time for both students and IT staffers.
Atlassian, a Sydney-based maker of collaboration software, has two innovation programs: a 20% time initiative and one called ShipIt, which takes place quarterly over 24 hours.
ShipIt starts at 4 p.m. on a Thursday and goes to 4 p.m. the following day. "The idea is to give employees the opportunity to itch something they wanted to scratch," says company president Jay Simons, adding that employees can work solo or in teams, usually of no more than five.
Projects can be a prototype of a new feature or a fix to an existing product, but whatever it is, it has to be completed in 24 hours. "By compressing the time, it made the innovation target more bite-sized and achievable," Simons explains.
Another key requirement: The results of ShipIt work must be presented to co-workers in a five-minute demo. "Even if someone tried to build a widget and failed, they have to give a presentation," says Simons. "Because then, five people will go up to that developer afterwards and offer ideas."
Only about one-third of the company's 500 employees -- mostly engineers -- participate in the 20% program "because it's hard to dedicate a day a week to something," says Simons. "Products have to ship, and sometimes development takes longer than estimated."
The benefit of having two programs is that each serves a different purpose, according to Simons. The ShipIt program has been the source of "hundreds of small improvements to business processes," he says. The 20% time initiative, on the other hand, has yielded fewer results, but those results have had a big impact.
And in another 20% time project, a quality assurance engineer -- not even a software developer -- built a prototype of an internal bug-tracking system for the company's JIRA software, which tracks software development projects. The result was so impressive that Atlassian turned it into a product, Bonfire, which started shipping in July 2011. Total revenue at last tally: $1 million, and the QA engineer is now its product manager.
Not all innovations pay off quite so handsomely, or yield any monetary return at all -- nor are they designed to.
At Detroit-based online mortgage lender Quicken Loans, CIO Linglong He oversees a program called BulletTime (so named because the projects are quick and targeted). The idea is for all 750 IT team members to take time to work on personal projects every Monday from 1 p.m. till the end of the workday.
Notable BulletTime projects include an internal application called Qwicktionary that lists all of the abbreviations used by the company; a mortgage calculator for clients; and an iPhone app called NorthStar that indicates the location of the company's 100-plus conference rooms. "NorthStar had a positive impact on meeting productivity, because people aren't late to meetings anymore," says He.
Allowing something as amorphous as time out to innovate may be anathema to some IT organizations and managers, but supporters say techies are uniquely suited to such programs. "Innovation and creativity are an important part of what any IT organization does," says Penn's Beck.
That said, ITO programs need guidelines. Consumers Energy has internal communications tools, such as Yammer, that employees use to post ideas and form teams. Chamarthi and her staff meet weekly to review the ideas. If the business side likes a project enough to fund it, it has to reduce the priority of another project. The underlying message to the IT team: 20% projects have to have business value.
And no matter what the goal, CIOs advise patience when it comes to implementing innovation programs. "You have to set the expectations that this is an experiment and it may change along the way," says He. "You also have to build flexibility in. Too often, technology leaders want to build a perfect solution from day one."
Finally, warns Beck, if innovation and creativity are not part of your existing culture, you're not going to instill those qualities in a single day. "It has to be something you encourage on a consistent basis," she says. "Be patient. You're planting seeds, and it can take time for ideas to germinate."
How to Get Started on an ITO Program
Thinking of starting a Google-style "20% time" innovation "time-off" program in your department? Here's some advice from IT managers who have paved the way:
Decide what percentage of time the program will include: 20%? 10%? Less? There are no hard-and-fast rules, and you have to balance employee productivity with the less-restricted idea of innovation.
Get management buy-in for any program that consumes a half-day per week or more, because that would represent a 10% cut in the amount of time employees spend on "real work."
Make participation voluntary. Not everyone in your IT department may want to play.
Extend participation beyond developers to the entire IT staff. Atlassian's biggest payoff came from an idea generated by a QA analyst.
Apply some structure and milestones to ensure that projects don't go on and on without delivering results.
Consider how you'll support collaboration. Will you use digital tools, such as wikis for asynchronous discussions, or actual physical facilities, such as conference rooms where teams can meet in person?
Be sure to track all projects, not just the successes. An idea that didn't bear fruit initially might be worth pursuing later.
Consider whether you want to set up a rewards system. True, you're already paying people to do their jobs, but you might want to think about bonuses if an innovation project results in a huge payoff -- like Atlassian's Bonfire did.
Manage your own expectations and those of senior executives. Supporting innovation may not deliver immediate results, and you should feel free to tweak the program based on feedback by the participants.
Howard Baldwin is a Silicon Valley-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Computerworld.
This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.
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