Time off to innovate: Good idea or a waste of tech talent?

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 developer of collaboration software, supports two different innovation programs -- a "20% time" program that started in 2006 and one that takes place quarterly over 24 hours, called ShipIt, which began in 2007.

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.

That project could be a prototype of a new feature, or a fix to an existing product, but whatever it is, it has to be able to be completed in 24 hours. "By compressing the time, it made the innovation target more bite-sized and achievable," Simons explains. "Because employees can design the scope themselves, they feel like they can do it in a day."

One key requirement: the results of ShipIt work must be presented to co-workers during a five-minute demo. "Even if someone tried to build a widget and failed, they have to give a presentation. Because then five people will go up to that developer afterwards and offer ideas."

Only about a 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," Simons says. "Products have to ship, and sometimes development takes longer than estimated."

The two programs exist side-by-side, says Simons, because they serve different purposes. The ShipIt program has been the source of "hundreds of small improvements to business processes" while the 20% time program has had fewer outcomes but with larger impact.

How large an impact? One of the 20% time programs eventually evolved into the open-source JavaScript-based graphic manipulation tool Raphael.

And one quality assurance engineer -- not even a software developer -- decided to build an internal bug-tracking system for the company's JIRA software, which tracks software development projects, and used the 20% program to build a prototype. The result was so impressive that Atlassian turned it into a product, Bonfire, which started shipping in July of 2011. Total revenue at last tally: $1 million, and the QA engineer is now its product manager.

Payoffs, monetary and otherwise

Not all innovations pay off that handsomely, or even in money -- 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 technology team members to take time out of their day to work on any personal project or idea they want. It happens every Monday afternoon from 1 p.m. to close-of-business.

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+ conference rooms. "NorthStar had a positive impact on meeting productivity, because people aren't late to meetings anymore," says He.

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