Good news for anyone who has ever been busted by the boss for working on something not explicitly “work-related” in the office: although you may have been deemed a shirking slacker before, you may have earned yourself the new, swanky title of intrapreneur.
A growing number of companies are encouraging, and even requiring, their employees to engage in what the W.L. Gore company (producer of Gore-Tex) calls “dabble time,” a designated number of hours or portion of the work week in which they may explore creative ideas and side projects.
Instead of handing their employees a Ritalin and telling them to get back to calculating the Annual Widget Production Report, the higher-ups are increasingly embracing this pursuit of creative side projects. Although there are no hard statistics about the success- versus-failure rates of greenlighting projects born from “dabble time,” some of today’s most ubiquitous products are the result of one guy’s wandering mind.
The Post-It note, the fluorescent, square pad that we all know and love, is perhaps the most indispensable example of ADD-gone-good. Although Lisa Kudrow famously attempts to claim it as her own invention in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the Post-It was actually scientist Spencer Silver’s brainchild. 3M’s policy of allowing employees 15% of their time to work on projects of their choosing proved a smart move when Silver developed adhesive that gives the Post-It its perfect degree of stickiness. Silver was at a loss as to how to use the adhesive but extolled its potential in seminars attended by his colleagues. Among them was Art Frey, who realized in church that the papers he stuffed in his hymnal would stay put if only he slapped some of Silver’s glue on them.
In this instance, a pet project became an immensely successful and lucrative product. Other examples of inventions borne out of dabble time include the Sony Playstation in 1994 and the Java Programming Language in 1995. While these examples are from a few years back, Google is perhaps the highest-visibility company today that urges its employees to engage their creative-mindedness instead of suppressing it. And the trend will likely continue. As with so many of Google’s business practices, it’s a safe bet that if Larry and Sergey are doing it, more companies are sure to follow their lead.
Extracurricular projects turning to gold will be a growing phenomenon if and when companies acknowledge that giving their workers creative leeway is mutually beneficial. Offering employees the opportunity to foster their creativity not only generates profitable products, but it signals to employees that they are seen as more than clock-punching drones. Granting employees 15% flex time to pursue things they really love enhances productivity, inspires loyalty, and might just spawn the Next Big Thing. So go ahead, put that Project List aside, and map out that idea for a Facebook Widget you’ve been thinking about. If your boss protests, just explain to her that if the next Post-It or PlayStation is conceived on company time, she gets a hefty cut of the revenue.