"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

26 August 2012


Business books and management gurus have long sung the praises of giving employees free time to tinker on projects they initiate. The idea seems to have begun with 3M, who allowed employees to spend 15 percent for their workweek focused on projects that were unrelated to their normal work. More recently, Google upped the percentage to 20 percent of the workweek. Many other tech companies seem to have followed suit, some changing the formula a bit to establish dedicated “hack weeks” or “FedEx days” where all employees shed their normal projects and tinker with ideas that are inherently interesting to them. For companies that use such programs, innovation seems to increase. 3M points to legendary products such as the Post-It note as proof of its effectiveness. Google can hold up Gmail, Google News and AdSense as vital products birthed in 20 percent time.

The programs work. But why?

Despite their public successes, few efforts have been made to study these programs and uncover the reasoning behind why they work. To that end, my friend and co-author Gary Oster and I have recently published a paper exploring just that. Our paper explores what we call “Noncommissioned Work” (a term borrowed from Daniel Pink) and attempts to offer an explanation for why such programs yield innovative ideas. We offer a few definitions to distinguish types of noncommissioned work. “Transient Noncommissioned Work” describes programs where organizations declare set times for the entire team to engage in autonomous work, such as a “hack week” where all employees engage in self-initiated projects for an entire week. “Persistent Noncommissioned Work” refers to the more traditional 15 percent or 20 percent time, where employees are allowed to allocate a certain portion of their schedule for self-initiated work.

Read on at The Creativity Post.

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