July 24, 2012, 3:00 PM — If you've used a Post-it Note lately or sent a message from a Gmail account, you've been the beneficiary of a corporate innovation program that gives employees time to be creative -- and, while they're at it, sometimes invent products that go on to become wildly popular.
Google is well known in the tech community for its "20% time," which gives employees a day a week to follow their passions, but it's hardly the first company to have done so. For decades, 3M Corp. has allotted 15% of its employees' time to innovation, which led to the creation of the now-ubiquitous yellow sticky note, among other products.
Dan Pink, author of the best-selling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says hard numbers on corporate innovation programs are difficult to come by, but interest is on the rise. "I do know that more organizations are looking at the companies that are doing it, and that it's becoming more popular."
Why? Because otherwise, innovation doesn't get done. "The CEO may say innovation is one of the company's top three priorities," says Doug Williams, a Forrester Research analyst, "but there's always something happening in the short-term that pushes the long-term innovation off."
When innovation gets postponed for too long, companies languish -- witness the reversal of RIM's fortune and Microsoft's vilification in the mainstream media for its failure to innovate. "Innovation programs remove the constraints that accompany traditional work, and offer a safe space for failure," Pink says. "That lets people try riskier things."
Time off pros and cons
Sometimes known as Innovation Time Off or ITO, creativity programs aim to battle stagnation on multiple fronts. They give employees the freedom to explore and the ability to be creative, which can improve morale and increase work output. When serendipity strikes, the end result can be a product or feature that boosts productivity, increases corporate revenue, or both.
And they represent a new way to help retain employees in today's competitive labor market. "The old motivational techniques have run their course. We've oversold the carrot-and-stick and undersold quieter forms of motivation," Pink says.