Fostering Innovation with Time Off

Back in 2005, Marissa Mayer, Google’s Vice President of Search Products and User Experience, showed that 50% of all new product launches at the time had originated from an “Innovation Time Off” program.

At Google, every engineer is encouraged to spend 20% of their time on projects they have most passion for. Sergey Brin and Larry Page explain the idea in a TED conference.

A “20% Project” can be a personal project or a team project, in which any engineer can join. They can be just kicked-off based on the person choice, upon agreement with management/ tech lead. There are also projects available/running, and teams are open to get help from other engineers interested.

Employees are fully flexible on how they want to organize their time. They can work 1 day a week on their 20% Project or a certain amount of days per quarter, it doesn’t matter.

These projects do not need to be engineering-related; this is how even a new bus route was created in San-Francisco by an employee who was fed-up driving every day to the office. He found the optimal route to make it financially viable and just did it.  “The idea is simple; you spend 20% of your time working on something you like most” (Tim Emiola, Software Engineer, London)

The amount of small innovative projects tends to lower as structures grow. However, these projects are incredibly important even for big structures as they are often at the start of much bigger business opportunities. The 20% Project program enables projects to start small, with limited budget, and spread through the organization. Internet pilots help the company understand which ones have potential and which ones don’t. Off the ranking of the 100-best projects, staffing and budget are allocated to support the most promising, and deliver scaled solutions for end-users.

This policy serves several purposes for Google:

  • It is a huge catalyst for innovation. It opens the door for small projects to be pursued even if they offer no certainty of working in the end. From the dozens of projects pursued, only a few will be moved to a large scale, but these few projects can deliver huge business success, like Google News, Gmail, AdSense or Google answers.
  • It helps motivating employees as they can have a tangible impact on the business with a project of their own. Work is always better when it is on projects one love.
  • It enables Google to attract the best talents from universities. Young engineers are full of ideas and would rather spend time developing them rather than being assigned to routine tasks.
  • It gives Google a great flexibility to react to rapidly evolving environment conditions. Just after the Tsunami in Japan, dozens of employees were enabled to spend their time on helping Japanese people in any way they could.
  • This program also helped Google show their sense of social responsibility and altruism in the case of Japan.

However, Google’s Innovation Time Off couldn’t work without their supporting organisational culture. Originally, the program was designed to leave 20% of time 100% free, allowing employees to do whatever they like, even playing baby-foot for instance. Employees do play baby-foot, but they have rapidly made the program evolve into a “20% project” program. Employees are selected on their “wanna do” attitude, and Google’s culture is fostering a deep sense of duty towards the company. Google is a low hierarchy company, with many decisions taken by peer reviews or voting rather than top-down. This gives freedom to employees in their work and limits the risk of middle-management cutting promising projects too early. Their organization also has flexible boundaries, which allows them to connect people from different locations, teams and reporting lines to join efforts for new projects.

Now, Google is neither the only company nor the first one to have engaged in such a program. For instance, 3M started their Innovation Time Off program in 1948 already! It is called 15% Solution and works about the same as Google’s. It was originally not as formalized but room was given to employees to spend a certain amount of time just daydreaming or working with company infrastructure on projects of their own.

Authors Collins and Porras, authors of Built to Last, summarize their findings from 3M and provide five takeaways to drive Innovation at any business:

  1. “Give it a try–and quick!” – Essentially echoing on having a process to try out a lot of stuff, and keeping what really works. The key here is to do something. Keep on trying something new.
  2. “Accept that mistakes will be made.” – Learn from the mistakes quickly, and move on. Failures are part and parcel of what creates new innovation. Don’t repeat the same mistakes.
  3. “Take small steps.” – Experiment, but on a small scale. When something looks promising, go all out and seize the opportunity. This way one can do plenty of inexpensive experiments that create a funnel of would-be innovations.
  4. “Give people the room they need.” – Without entrepreneurship, there is no experiment. Without experiment there is no success or failure. People need some time, incentives, job security and room to experiment.
  5. “Mechanisms – build that ticking clock!” – How do you harness creativity and build innovation? It cannot happen simply by chance. Companies need to create practices and tangible mechanisms to experiment, try out new ideas and innovate.

Companies like P&G also enable employees to work on small personal projects. Yearly discussions on work plans offer a way to find a good balance between operational work and personal projects based on employees’ interest.

Finally, this practice is not limited to big corporations. Small companies or independents can also adopt this approach. It is a question of discipline and openness. Discipline to get out of the daily routine to “day-dream” like at 3M. Openness because new ideas come by randomness. I was personally amazed how time spent in a co-working space in Geneva (http://la-muse.ch/) has enabled me to make unexpected connections, leading to new directions and new services for my company.

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