New research shows that innovation efforts benefit from giving employees free time (aka ‘slack time’), but not for the reason you might believe. While Google’s free time initiative might have led to creative new ideas, the real benefit of slack time is to allow innovators to get the administrative and other execution-oriented tasks done.
Google was famous for its 20% free innovation time policy. Google employees were allowed to spend 20% of their time in the office to pursue any personal interests and ideas that could lead to new products or revenue sources for Google. Aside from this mandate, employees were unfettered by deadlines and goals. Instead, they were able to explore creative new thoughts, hunches and concepts without limits.
Google eventually decided to take back this free time, but other companies, including Microsoft and Apple, continue the experiment in some form or another. These and other companies believe that slack time is vital to unleash the creativity that leads to innovation.
New research from University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and MIT’s Sloan School of Management reveals a surprising insight into the relationship between slack time and innovation: slack time can be a major contributor to innovation success, but not only for the expected reasons.
According to the research, slack time supports innovation because it enables innovators to take care of the time-consuming, mundane, execution-oriented tasks that often bog down innovation projects. Innovation may begin with a creative thought, but the voyage from creative breakthrough to commercialized innovation is long and filled with dull but necessary non-creative work. For example, think of the many administrative and execution to-dos related to financing and marketing a project.
The researchers used data on projects that appeared on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter over a five-year period to uncover the link between slack time and the accomplishment of mundane tasks. Kickstarter is a valuable means for entrepreneurs who have developed innovative projects to raise funds for those projects. There are however, time-consuming mundane tasks related to registering a project on the Kickstarter platform and building a project page. A complete project page will usually include not just pictures and information on the project and the people behind the project, but also a summary video of the project.
The researchers focused on projects posted by students. During the five-year period studied, they found that in college towns, nearly 50% more projects were posted on Kickstarter during vacation periods. The type of projects correlated exactly with the type of school. In other words, more art projects went online when art schools were on vacation. More engineering projects went online when engineering schools were on vacation.
Even more revealing, the projects went online toward the beginning of the school breaks and not the end. This is important because it indicates that the creative development of the project had been accomplished before the break. What these innovators needed was the time to do the drudgework required to post the project (from making the summary video to filling out the registration papers).
The results reflect that students (and other innovators) can perform their important creative work during any spare time that they can grab — in the evenings or on weekends, for instance. To plow through the administrative tasks required to put the project on kickstarter, however, the students needed the big blocks of time available only during vacation breaks.
Most discussions of innovation focus on the creative steps in the process. The often-told story of the invention of post-its — developed by a 3M scientist looking for ways to attach bookmarks in his hymnal — neglects the long, dull journey of product testing, failed product launches, rebranding and new marketing efforts, and so forth. “The rest is history,” as the saying goes, but in real life, between the Eureka moment and “history,” there is a lot of paperwork and other execution-oriented tasks. Those tasks aren’t going to be accomplished in one’s spare time.
If you want your organization to be truly innovative, focus not only on creating the culture of innovation that enables creativity, but develop also the structures and processes that enable the less glamorous administrative and other mundane tasks related to innovation.
As this research makes clear, enabling the execution-oriented supporting tasks of innovation requires establishing available time in large, uninterrupted chunks. Companies that were never convinced employees would make the most of free time in terms of developing creative ideas might consider testing non-creative uninterrupted time: working into the schedule of employees specific time in which they are supposed to focus exclusively on administrative and other tasks.
These companies might find that they will avoid the frustration of watching innovative projects or ideas, launched with a sense of excitement and optimism, become bogged down before coming to fruition.
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