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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?

By Howard Baldwin
November 5, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - 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.


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

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