Setting aside work time to play and experiment

I’m sitting in a meeting room on the 5th floor of Bobst Library (part of our Research Commons) adjacent to the Digital Studio. I’m here with three other people. The room is silent except for clicking keyboards and the occasional sigh. This is a regularly scheduled, two-hour “meeting.” We gather every other Friday and often work the full two hours without saying much to each other.

This is our “Digital Tools Experimentation” time. Nearly a year ago I proposed this meeting to a group of colleagues in order for us to set aside time to explore and learn. Sometimes we work silently on our own things; sometimes we present new, cool tech that we’ve found; sometimes we ask each other for help. We have no fixed agenda, no preparation, and we simply show up when we can.

Many companies provide staff innovation or exploration time, for example Google’s 20% Time and 3M’s 15% rule. Some call this Passion Time. Intuit takes a different approach with its “innovation vacation,” in which staff can schedule time off to pursue special projects. Intuit’s program is designed to mitigate a key problem with the “percentage time” approach. As Braden Kelley explains in No Time to Innovate: “The day-to-day deadline pressures and fire drills never disappear in any organization (even an innovative one), and so often the joke goes – sure Google employees get 20% time, but only if it’s on Saturday or Sunday.”

Here is why I proposed our bi-weekly “Digital Tools Experimentation” time:

  1. Focus on learning: While innovation is important, we can’t innovate without taking the time to explore and learn new things. It’s a prerequisite.
  2. Meetings: Our work is meeting-heavy. Unless we practice defensive calendaring, it’s nearly impossible to set time aside for reflection, exploration, and experimentation.
  3. Preserving off hours: Sure, it’s a profession and not a job. So I understand that we’re going to remain mentally engaged with our work outside of our regular work hours. However that’s a bad excuse for pushing work-related (really, required) learning and exploration to our off hours.
  4. Put up or shut up: I could have told my staff that I value exploration and that it’s important for them to find the work time to experiment with new technologies. But that’s putting the burden on them to find the time, which is hard because of #2 and leads to #3, which isn’t fair.
  5. Modeling behavior: It’s important to model the behavior you seek in others. I want my colleagues and staff to feel that I really value this. And the best way seemed to be for me to actually instigate it and show up. So in showing up we all collectively give ourselves permission to do this together.
  6. Selfish reasons: I also wanted a regularly-schedule excuse to set aside work time to play and experiment.

What do you think? Do you do this as well in your organizations? How does it work?