None of which is to say there aren't downsides to such programs. For some managers, it's hard to let staffers spend even an occasional half-day on an outside project without expecting immediate results. For employees, it can be hard to shift focus and take up something amorphous when real-world deadlines loom.
How to Get Started on an ITO Program
Thinking of starting a Google-style "20% time" innovation "time-off" program in your department? Here's some advice from IT managers who have paved the way:
Decide what percentage of time the program will include: 20%? 10%? Less? There are no hard-and-fast rules, and you have to balance employee productivity with the less-restricted idea of innovation.
Get management buy-in for any program that consumes a half-day per week or more, because that would represent a 10% cut in the amount of time employees spend on "real work."
Make participation voluntary. Not everyone in your IT department may want to play.
Extend participation beyond developers to the entire IT staff. Atlassian's biggest payoff came from an idea generated by a QA analyst.
Apply some structure and milestones to ensure that projects don't go on and on without delivering results.
Consider how you'll support collaboration. Will you use digital tools, such as wikis for asynchronous discussions, or actual physical facilities, such as conference rooms where teams can meet in person?
Be sure to track all projects, not just the successes. An idea that didn't bear fruit initially might be worth pursuing later.
Consider whether you want to set up a rewards system. True, you're already paying people to do their jobs, but you might want to think about bonuses if an innovation project results in a huge payoff -- like Atlassian's Bonfire did.
Manage your own expectations and those of senior executives. Supporting innovation may not deliver immediate results, and you should feel free to tweak the program based on feedback by the participants.
- Howard Baldwin
But some people who have participated in such programs say the potential for positive results is worth it.