By Andrew Angus on February 21, 2013

Have you ever been working on a project when you asked someone else to take a look so you could get it checked by a “second pair of eyes”?

It’s something we do all the time. Whether it’s a blog post, an e-mail, or a video script, if we want something to improve, we look for a second pair of eyes to double check what we’ve done.

This is true with creating things, and it’s also true of creative companies. Thought-leading creative companies know that, when it comes to creativity, two heads are better than one and that fifty are better than two.

Google’s 20% time

Google is one of the first companies to embrace this concept. From early on the company created a 20% time program where employees could work on special projects of their choosing. The thought behind this was that the 20% time would free employees to work on projects they deemed valuable which in turn would lead to invaluable R&D time for Google.

This program eventually birthed products like Gmail, Google News, and Google for Good. All from employees using one day per week on a project of their choosing.

And it makes sense when you think about it. Google works hard to hire the smartest and most talented employees that they can, so it’s worthwhile to unleash these employees on creative projects they’ve deemed worthy to pursue. This instantly creates 50, 100, 150, or 200 new pairs of eyes to solve problems and create new products, depending on how many employees a company has.

The inverse of this is a limited number of executives sitting in a boardroom coming up with every single new idea. These executives aren’t as in tune with the company’s product development and they aren’t as in tune with the projects being worked on and their relationship with customers. This leads to an idea bottleneck where only a few pairs of eyes are attempting to identify new ideas and solve current problems. It makes sense that companies would tap into the collective power of their employees to generate more and better ideas.

A few more examples

Google started the trend by encouraging employees to spend 20% of their time on projects of their choosing, but other companies have started similar programs.

One such program is by LinkedIn where they’ve set up a system to select the best ideas presented by engineers. The engineers develop a prototype and then pitch it to a panel of judges (two rounds if they make it that far). The projects deemed worthy are then slotted for engineers to work on for 30 to 90 days with a re-evaluation every 30 days. If the projects are progressing, they’re given another 30 day period for development.

This program is different from Google’s in that it allows engineers to work on approved projects with 100% of their time, but it’s similar in that it taps into the creativity and ingenuity of its current employees.

Instead of ideas being generated from the top down with layers of red-tape, ideas are generated at every level so anyone with a good idea can present it and work on it. This also allows for more experiments and more projects to prove themselves instead of getting kiboshed too early when upper management has to make every decision.

Another example of this is 37 Signals. They recently gave their employees a full month off to work on projects of their choosing. To do this, they required employees to set aside “nonessential product work” which was everything besides “customer service and keeping…servers running.” At the end of the month, employees pitched their ideas with the best being slotted for further development.

Jason Fried, a 37 Signals co-founder, said this about why they decided to take this approach:

Like most businesses, 37signals has more ideas than it has time to develop them. Even at a workplace as unstructured as ours, the usual concerns simply make it impossible to follow through on every promising notion.

He also described this as the bottom-line for the experiment:

If you can’t spare some time to give your employees the chance to wow you, you’ll never get the best from them.

We tend to agree with Jason. If you’re not tapping into the creative potential of all your employees then you’re missing out on opportunities to get the most out of the workers you have employed.

Thinking outside of the box is critical for succeeding in the new digital marketplace. If everyone played it safe, the world wouldn’t be filled with amazing companies offering innovative products and services.

To gain an edge on your competitors, you have to find a way to offer or do something that they don’t, or at least do it in a way that’s better. Creativity will lead you to these discoveries, and one of the the best ways to take your company to a different level is to get the creative juices flowing in all your employees.

What are your thoughts? Have you considered giving your employees more time to work on their own projects or at least finding ways to tap into the idea-generating power of all your employees? Leave a comment so we can discuss.

Sources:
Why I Gave My Company a Month Off, Inc.
Google exec says Google’s 20 percent time helped form ‘Youtube for Good’, 9to5Google.com
LinkedIn Gone Wild: ‘20 Percent Time’ to Tinker Spreads Beyond Google, Wired.com

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