At Detroit-based online mortgage lender Quicken Loans, CIO Linglong He oversees a program called BulletTime (so named because the projects are quick and targeted). The idea is for all 750 IT team members to take time to work on personal projects every Monday from 1 p.m. till the end of the workday.
Notable BulletTime projects include an internal application called Qwicktionary that lists all of the abbreviations used by the company; a mortgage calculator for clients; and an iPhone app called NorthStar that indicates the location of the company's 100-plus conference rooms. "NorthStar had a positive impact on meeting productivity, because people aren't late to meetings anymore," says He.
Allowing something as amorphous as time out to innovate may be anathema to some IT organizations and managers, but supporters say techies are uniquely suited to such programs. "Innovation and creativity are an important part of what any IT organization does," says Penn's Beck.
That said, ITO programs need guidelines. Consumers Energy has internal communications tools, such as Yammer, that employees use to post ideas and form teams. Chamarthi and her staff meet weekly to review the ideas. If the business side likes a project enough to fund it, it has to reduce the priority of another project. The underlying message to the IT team: 20% projects have to have business value.
And no matter what the goal, CIOs advise patience when it comes to implementing innovation programs. "You have to set the expectations that this is an experiment and it may change along the way," says He. "You also have to build flexibility in. Too often, technology leaders want to build a perfect solution from day one."
Finally, warns Beck, if innovation and creativity are not part of your existing culture, you're not going to instill those qualities in a single day. "It has to be something you encourage on a consistent basis," she says. "Be patient. You're planting seeds, and it can take time for ideas to germinate."
Baldwin is a Silicon Valley-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Computerworld.
This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.
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