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

Savvy IT departments that set aside time for employee creativity say they gain happier workers, more satisfied customers, and sometimes even revenue

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 percent 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 percent of its employees' time to innovation, which led to the creation of the now-ubiquitous yellow sticky note, among other products.

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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 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent of their week to work this way," says Williams, noting that for some companies, 10 percent -- 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.

Atlassian, a Sydney-based developer of collaboration software, supports two different innovation programs -- a "20 percent 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 170 employees -- mostly engineers -- participate in the 20 percent 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 percent time program has had fewer outcomes but with larger impact.

How large an impact? One of the 20 percent 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 percent 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.

At Consumers Energy, as part of its 20 percent program, one of the developers in its IT department put together a proof-of-concept for a mobile application that could be deployed to customers so they can report power outages and check restoration information from their mobile devices. It took just 12 weeks to execute. "We may have mismanaged expectations on the business side," jokes Chamarthi. "They wanted to know why we couldn't do all our projects like that."

Currently in the pipeline is a geographical information system (GIS) application designed to run on mobile devices and replace the paper maps that designate locations of substations, pipelines and other utility assets. Field workers had to estimate exact locations of such assets, but the iPad application will contain geospatial capabilities that eliminate the guesswork.

"The developers spent time riding along with field technicians to observe how they did their work," says Chamarthi. "They went out in a middle of a storm to see what actually happened when the technicians had to fix something. When our team came up with the proof-of-concept for the GIS application, it bubbled up in priority real fast. There's nothing better you can do for the business than address a pain point."

Taking the plunge, with parameters

Allowing something as amorphous as time out to innovate may be anathema to some IT organizations, or their managers, but supporters say techies are uniquely suited to such programs. "Innovation and creativity are an important part of what any IT organization does every day," says Penn's Beck.

Dan Pink takes it one step further: "One reason that software development and IT work well in innovation programs is that the tasks that come out of them can be fairly discrete. There are always things that can be improved in software products, and components you can fix easily. Software is modular, and a lot of coding lends itself to individual heads-down work, or a team of two or three people. It's not like building a car, where you need massive amounts of physical space or equipment."

That said, ITO programs need guidelines. Consumers Energy has internal communications tools, such as Yammer, where employees can post ideas and form teams. Chamarthi and her staff meet weekly to review the ideas. If the business side likes it enough to fund it, it has to lessen the priority of another project. The underlying message to the IT team: 20 percent projects have to have some business value.

At Quicken Loans, He put in place a virtual team of eight employees to track ideas originated from BulletTime and dedicated one person to facilitate the program. At Atlassian, employees have to obtain sponsorship from three other engineers and then submit a proposal to one of the founders for approval.

Once the parameters are set, CIOs advise patience when it comes to implementing such programs. Quicken Loans' He says, "You have to set the expectations that this is an experiment, and it may change along the way. You also have to build flexibility in. Too often, technology leaders want to build a perfect solution from day one," He says, emphasizing that outcomes from programs like these don't have to be perfect.

Finally, warns Beck, if innovation and creativity are not part of your existing culture, you're not going to infuse it in one day. "It has to be something you encourage on a consistent basis. Be patient. You're planting seeds, and it can take time for ideas to germinate."

Checklist: How to start an innovation time-off program

Thinking of starting a "Google 20 percent"-type innovation time-off program in your department? Here's some advice from IT managers who have paved the way:

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