The Best Way to Spend Friday Afternoon

What is important to you at work?  What is the thing that you are really bothered about, the thing that needs fixing?  What is the one issue that you could work on that would really make things better?

What is your big idea?

If your boss gave you Friday afternoon to do whatever you wanted (at work, constructively and within the law) how would you spend it?

Would you slope off at 4:30 like the rest of us or keep going ‘till 6:30?

If you were given the time, would you be more innovative?

Should you have time to innovate?

In 1948 3M launched the 15% time program; they allowed their staff 15% of their time to work on whatever they wanted.

Not to be out done Google have 20% time, the same principle, but just a little extra.

Twitter have hack weeks, once a year employee’s focus for a week on their own ideas.

And Atlassian have FedEx days, once a quarter they give employees 24 hours to “ship it overnight”. (If you have never heard of Atlassian then you are not alone, for enlightenment click here).

But all this time isn’t cheap, it is a significant investment.  Is it a splendid waste of money?

Why would you spend the money?

The poster child of all this free project time is Google’s all-pervasive Gmail.  It was a 20% time project and now has 423 million registered users.

A close run second is 3M’s post it note.

Perhaps more tellingly Twitter now hold Hack Weeks once a quarter instead of once a year and Atlassian (still no wiser) have moved to a 20% model like Google’s.

So they are getting something special.

What is the special sauce?

There are a number of theories, non of them conclusive, but here are a handful:

  • Staff are close to the daily work, so they know what the real issues are and how they could be fixed.
  • There is no downside if a project is a flop.  After all you can work on whatever you like, so staff take bigger leaps of faith, bigger risks, they will try things that they wouldn’t normally dare.
  • Employees are more engaged if they can work on what they think is important.  They will work harder and longer if they can set their own agendas.
  • Employees will collaborate more, share ideas and solutions.  They are all in it together and they don’t have their own targets to meet.
  • It becomes self-fulfilling; offering “creative freedom” is a very powerful way to recruit people with the skills and abilities innovative organisations need.

Not everybody likes it

Of course it isn’t a panacea; there is a bucket full of resistance:

  • Managers hate it, they have created strategies and projects, that aren’t getting delivered because people are “faffing about” playing with ideas.
  • Lots (and lots) of the ideas people come up with fail.  As the old saying goes, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince”.  So it is easy, really easy to take pot shots at the idea.
  • You will create a whole mountain of ideas, rafts of brilliance, and nobody ever does anything with them.  How are you supposed to invest the other 80% of the time?  Delivering the wild ideas?  Nothing “strategic” would ever get done.

The one thing I can’t guarantee

I can’t guarantee it will work.

But I can guarantee it won’t work if you don’t try.

You don’t have to bet 20% of your staff costs to find out.  But you could just test it.  Try just one day.  Maybe it is a good idea; maybe it is a bad one.  But you won’t ever know if you don’t try and if you don’t try anything new, you will never innovate.

Besides which, what else is there to do on Friday afternoons?

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Comments

  1. Hi James,
    Personally, I don’t think that the amount of time that you ‘invest’ is that important. I think what is more important is, like you say, that you do it and keep on doing it. It makes such a huge statement of intent and that the leadership and managers think and believe in their teams.

    I’d like to see much much much more of it.

    Adrian

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  1. […] are a number of theories about why such a concepts work. According to James Lawther via http://www.squawkpoint.com/2012/08/hack-days/ reasons […]

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