Should Employees Get Time to Innovate?

Companies as diverse as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) and Google have earned fame and high-profile products by giving employees time specifically to innovate. In recent years, the concept has often been termed “20% time,” because Google called it that, after the practice of giving employees 20% of their time, theoretically to innovate. Employees could have the equivalent of one day a week, in other words, or 4 days per month to sit with bold ideas or pet projects.

Guaranteed Time Can Be Productive

Is 20% time actually productive, or does it become just a place for passion-inspired tinkering with little future inside the business strategy? It’s certainly been hailed as an incubator of great projects. As the MIT Sloan Management Review recently pointed out, 3M credits the late 1940s invention of its venerable — and top-selling  — post-it notes to a program that provided employees with 15% of their paid time to innovate. Google has indicated that Gmail, Google Earth, and several other notable projects had their genesis in its own 20% time.

So 20% time can be very productive. But the fact is, corporate commitment to it doesn’t always hold steady, despite its successes. Google ended 20% time several years ago, according to Wired.

20% Time Isn’t Always Popular

There are multiple reasons why the time to innovate isn’t always popular. For instance, while the projects of 20% time (and its cousins of lesser time) may further corporate goals, they may also be perceived by line managers as conflicting with and even impeding their other departmental goals. They may discourage a protected space of time to innovate, or find ways to discourage people from using the time. It becomes more theoretical than actual.

Not all employees use or are offered 20% time. Senior level knowledge workers are more likely to use it than others. Granting time to innovate only to certain work groups or titles may be perceived negatively by others who do not get that time.

Some industry observers wonder whether programs like 20% time may de-emphasize or even conflict with business leadership seeking to establish a culture of daily innovation. After all, this line of thinking goes, if innovation is a core value, people ought to be encouraged to use it every day. Innovative ideas often occur in the line of daily work, not outside of it.

While innovations occurring in specific time set aside for it have certainly occurred, so have innovations in “120% time” — time spent outside of the daily work life, on evenings and weekends.

Business leadership may deem protected time to innovate detrimental to the bottom line. Evidence suggests that the commitment to it among companies that have used it rises and falls according to cultural climates, business conditions, and more.

So should employees receive time specifically to innovate? Much depends on the corporate culture and the results. It can be beneficial. But so can a daily culture of innovation. The evidence suggests that companies dedicated to ongoing research and development, such as 3M and Google, are the most likely users — but not even they deploy it all the time.