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?

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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.

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