Encouraging Innovation: Does Giving Employees “20% Time” Actually Work?

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Mar 18, 2016
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Reacting to so-called “20 percent time” policies made popular by Google and others, a recent article on Inc. argues that innovation rarely comes from protected time or spaces away from normal work.

Rather, great ideas “come from busy people who had ideas while doing their day job, stayed late, and tried things.”

This comment got me thinking about the relationship between innovation, particularly as it occurs in the stream of everyday work, and a social recognition solution that can encourage more of it.

The common thread is the ability to catch and call out great examples of everyday work that align to an organization’s core values. Considering how many companies include innovation as a core value, and are focused on cascading those values throughout their organizations, recognition is ideally suited to that task.

How “20% time” policies actually work

First, it may be helpful to understand the rationale behind “20 percent time”-type policies.

A Wired article states the core idea rather succinctly: “Knowledge workers are most valuable when granted protected space in which to tinker.” The idea often leads to informal programs with few ground rules; instead, employees are encouraged to make use of the time to work on projects that they think will most benefit their companies.

Unfortunately, rather than carve out time from daily work, employees devote extra nights and weekends to their projects, effectively resulting in 120 percent time. The dynamics of such programs typically mean that relatively few employees will take part, especially in light of performance tracking metrics highly weighted towards everyday responsibilities.

Companies are thus faced with a dilemma, balancing the potential for radical innovation from a few working in protected isolation versus the cumulative effect of everyday and incremental innovation from the many seeking to improve upon their work.

I would wager the importance of having innovation as a core value shared by everyone in the organization probably points to an emphasis on the latter. As such, it becomes increasingly important to implement a solution to help foster everyday innovation (alongside policies that capture the idea, if perhaps not the reality, of encouraging radical innovation).

How recognition can help innovation

Here is the point where I disagree with the Inc. article: It goes on to suggest all that is needed for innovation to occur is to allow employees to try things without needing permission.

While doing so may lower barriers for employees that are “ready” to innovate, it does nothing to encourage that same behavior from employees who are less ready. It does nothing to create a shared culture of regular innovation, where trial-and-error or learning from mistakes is valued. It does nothing to suggest which ideas are highly novel or useful, while being aligned to the organization.

Social recognition can accomplish these goals, allowing employees to notice others for their innovative contributions or process improvements.

Leaders, both formal and informal, can identify and hold up examples of innovation across roles and teams, demonstrating the diversity of contributions that occur in the scope of everyday work, and aligning those contributions to the mission and direction of the organization. More importantly, these aspects combine to create a culture that is aligned to the core value of innovation alongside the company’s other core values.

What types of contributions have you made at work where you have been or could have been recognized for innovation?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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