I’ve just read a few articles about this topic (this is a summary of those articles + some of my own thoughts). Most people know the story of how Google gives every employee 20% ‘free’ time to spend on new ideas and innovation. Several new products and services (some sources say 50%) of the new products originate from the 20% ‘innovation’ time. The principle behind it is that every employee can spend this amount of time on an any idea or project that will advance Google in some way. HP and 3M were already doing similar programs (10% and 15% respectively) – back in 1948 with some success.

More and more companies consider a ‘free time’ program and there are different variations of the ‘20% free time’. At Yahoo they organized Hack Days  – a specific 24 hours timeframe where employees collaborate (or work together in a friendly competition) on new projects. And at Atlassian they organize a ShipIt-day 4 times a year (Seth Godin would be happy ;-)). Several other companies (most of them in the IT-industry) are now trying these kind of experiments and I believe that these companies can only benefit from it. The best way is to experiment and see if it works but keep a few things in mind before you start:

+ Start small, fail fast and learn fast
Is there a culture in your company where it’s okay to experiment and fail. Because failure is inherent to innovation. We even invented a new word to support this vision: a nearling. A nearling is a positive word for something new that was done with the right intentions, which has not – yet – led to the right result. For true innovation, the ability to let go is just as important as thinking of something new. So make sure that you’ll have enough nearlings if you want to have success.

+ Make time to have a time-off (allow ‘slack’)
You need to create some ‘time-off’ to allow employees to think about new ideas and work on ‘extra’ projects. And that’s not possible if the (time-)pressure for efficiency is enormous. If you have to do overtime to keep up with the ‘normal’ work, you won’t be happy with your ‘extra’ time. Tom DeMarco describes this very well in his book ‘Slack’ which means the degree of freedom required to effect change. If you work too efficiently, there’s no room for flexibility and innovation anymore and business becomes busyness.

+ Commitment from the top (and from employees)
If the top-management of the company is not supporting this program, forget it. You need commitment from the top otherwise employees will be ‘punished’ because they are not working on the job they were hired for. A lot of (middle-)managers still believe in the assumption that employees are lazy and have to be controlled. But a lot of control and detailed instructions won’t result in a mindset where breakthrough innovation can happen. And if the organization has been very hierarchical in the previous years, there’s a chance that the employees won’t have the skills and consciousness to work on their own or in self-organized teams to ‘discover’ new products and services.

And be aware that the result of these time off will not only deliver new products and services but they will add value to the development of a good team and the self-esteem of the employees.

+ Book ‘Slack’ from Tom DeMarco
+ Blogpost Computerworld
+ Blogpost Lifehacker