The problem with company-mandated “tinker time” is that it seldom results in innovation, writes Alec Foege, author of “The Tinkerers,” in The Wall Street Journal (1/19/13). True, Gmail, Google News and AdSense all reportedly resulted from Google’s famous “20% Time,” or time set aside for employees to “work on a project not related to their job description.” 3M actually pioneered a similar 15% program back in 1948, and Post-It Notes were a result. Hewlett-Packard’s tinker-time spawned the laser printer.
Google, however, now appears to be headed in a different direction: “In July 2011, it shut down Google Labs,” which enabled public commentary on its 20% projects. The company now also requires “managerial approval for a tinkering project.” Some employees apparently are spooked by the idea of company-mandated tinkering on top of their existing responsibilities. Furthermore, most tinkerers aren’t corporate types, and, in any case, “being ordered to tinker robs the activity of personal passion.”
One possible solution is to partner with outside tinkerers, as Procter & Gamble does via its Connect + Develop program. A German public-private hybrid, with government-funded tinkering linked to private enterprise led to the development of the MP3. Another possibility is to give the tinkerers ownership of what they develop, provided they give their employer “the right of first refusal to invest in any commercial venture that results from the innovation.” Perhaps most important is to “create a space of genuine creative chaos without clear goals, where repeated failure is a real and constant motivator.”