Time Off to Innovate: Good Idea Or a Waste of Tech Talent?

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 in the tech community for its “20% time,” which gives employees a day a week to follow their passions, but it’s hardly the first company to have done so. For decades, 3M Corp. has allotted 15% of its employees’ time to innovation, which 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 get done. “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 the reversal of RIM’s 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 on multiple fronts. They give employees the freedom to explore and the ability to be creative, which can improve morale and increase work output. When serendipity strikes, the end result can be a product or feature that boosts productivity, increases corporate revenue, or both.

And they represent a new way to help retain employees in today’s competitive labor market. “The old motivational techniques have run their course. We’ve oversold the carrot-and-stick and undersold quieter forms of motivation,” Pink says.

It’s energizing for employees to take a break from their day-to-day business and think creatively about solving other problems. Doug Williams, Forrester Research

“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 work even an occasional half-day a week without expecting tangible results, much less 20% of their total work time. For employees, it can be hard to shift focus and take up something amorphous when real-world deadlines loom.

But for those who embark on such programs, the potential for positive results is worth the effort.

“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 for 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 grassroots level of passion to generate more innovative and transformational changes.”

What’s the frequency?

One of the hardest factors to determine with an innovation program is its frequency. Among those who currently have such a program, there is little consistency. They range in frequency from a few days a year to one day quarterly to some time every week.

One thing seems clear: While “Google 20% time” has become a watchword for innovation time off, that’s a gold standard that not many other companies are able to offer. “Some companies simply don’t have the luxury to give employees 20% of their week to work this way,” says Williams, noting that for some companies, 10% — essentially, an afternoon each week — is more reasonable.

Some do it even less.

Robin Beck, vice president of information systems and computing at the University of Pennsylvania, instituted Exploration Days to let employees come up with an IT-related improvement 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. Mandating time on the corporate calendar drives home the point that innovation is a priority, she says, and gives employees the time to tackle ideas that might have perpetually stewed on the back burner.

The twist? Exploration Days takes place just once a year. The process begins with an Exploration Days wiki, on which IT staffers can post ideas and attract collaborators if they’re looking for them. Teams and individuals work on their project on one of two days (in order to provide flexibility); the third day, dubbed Report Out Day, combines an ice cream social with presentations from the teams about what they’ve achieved.

Beck and her team considered both monthly and quarterly programs before deciding to start with an annual event, which first took place in August of 2011. A second one is underway for this summer.

Participation isn’t mandatory, but a majority of Beck’s 300 employees did participate last year, she says, and last year’s discussions have already borne fruit. One team tackled the ongoing problem of configuring incoming students’ personal electronic devices for the university’s wireless network. It developed a new, more simplified process that saved time for both the students and the IT staff. >more