Uncharted Waters

Oct 26 2018   2:10PM GMT

Doing Innovation Days

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman


Google was well known at one point for having a requirement that 20% of employee time be spent off project and on innovative work. This is where GMail, Google News, Google Talk and so on came from. OK, so not all of those are exactly smash hits, but GMail is basically synonymous for personal email now. GMail happened because Google saw the value of letting people pursue the intersection of personal interest and company value a few hours each week. Most companies are hesitant to offer innovation time. There is risk that employees will use it as an excuse to surf the internet for a few hours, or just mentally check out and go home.

I want to talk about a good experience with time spent in innovation and exploration.

I took part in a planned innovation day earlier this week. We started in the morning with a normal standup. Rather than talking about status, we briefly discussed what we were planning to work on for the day and who we were working with, if anyone. The day before we added our ideas to a trello board that way there was some clarity. The work for the day had to be off project, or not related to a card we were working on, but provide some value to the company.

google innovation

After this we spent several hours working. We used as close to a normal development process as we could, including test driving, because if the idea turned out to be good we needed a path to get the change in our main branch and then into production. We worked through the day till about 2 and then had a brief status check. This was to see if anyone needed help, or wanted to abandon their idea and start working with someone else. After a couple more hours we got together as a team to demo what we worked on for the day and do a debrief.

Some projects didn’t get far enough to be useful, some were interesting but not suitable to be merged into the main product or live on their own, and some will probably become longer term efforts. I’d call it a pretty good turnout for one day of creative work. There was also the side affect of people getting to do something fun and be happy about it.

There are some tough parts of this model. Creating structure around it — the stand ups, the planning ahead for what we wanted to work on, the demo at the end of the day — all add pressure and chip away at the serendipity that made the Google 20% slack time work. Innovative ideas happen randomly, not necessarily on a schedule. Having a demo is a nice way to share what happened over the course of the day and desensitize developers to presenting, but at the same time it adds pressure to the process that might further chip away at the possibility of something interesting getting created.

Offering employees 20% of time to work off of a project is a lot to commit to, especially depending regional corporate culture. Some companies don’t like the idea of employees randomly taking 20% of their time to work on “passion projects”. There is evidence that this time is productive though, even if it takes time to demonstrate.

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