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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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.

How big? One 20% time program evolved into an open-source JavaScript-based graphic manipulation tool called Raphael.

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.

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