Because if 100% of your time is devoted to maintaining the status quo, when do you invent the future?

-Andromeda Yelton, You Say You Want a Revolution: ebooks, licensing, and the future

This quote comes at the end of a discussion of ebook licensing and the future of digital text. The topic is important in its own right, but I want to focus on the bit at the end regarding Google’s 20% time, or as it’s technically called, “Innovation Time Off.” Much has been said about this practice over the years and at the risk of spending my 20% time (i.e. my lunch break) beating the proverbial horse, I want to draw your attention to it.

If you are not familiar with the idea, Google’s Innovation Time Off is based on a practice at 3M that allows employees to spend a certain amount of their time at work focusing on whatever they feel might be beneficial to the company. According to a 2007 article from the NYTimes, staff form “grouplets” to work on pet projects, “these grouplets have practically no budget, and they have no decision-making authority. What they have is a bunch of people who are committed to an idea and willing to work to convince the rest of the company to adopt it.” The only stipulation for using Innovation Time Off is that employees must keep the company updated on the progress of their project.

NPR has a similar practice called “Serendipity Day.” According to Andrew Phelps of the Nieman Journalism Lab, “Serendipity Day is actually spread out over three days — and for something labeled as spontaneous, there’s a lot of planning. The staff is given two or three weeks to think about what to build. The ramp-up begins the afternoon before Serendipity Day, and the presentations happen the morning after. That way, all eight hours of the main day are spent building.” Because Google’s model would not work for NPR given its size and budget, Serendipity Day is a less resource-intensive alternative to 20% time. Yet it still gives staff the ability to exercise innovative thinking on a regular schedule and to share the results with colleagues.

And there is, in my opinion, the gem of the idea: sharing. It is not so much the scheduled time for innovative/creative thinking that matters. It is the required show-and-tell that follows. Both Google and NPR ask only that their employees share the results of their creative work. It doesn’t matter if the ideas are good or bad. That isn’t the point of the exercise. The point (and the hope) is that the ideas, once out in the open, will collide with other ideas, other hunches, and hopefully become part of what Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible” : the entirety of possible connections that make innovation possible and help ideas to “level up” (see also, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (2010), Chapter 1).

Library leaders current and future should take this practice to heart. Not only does it relieve you of the responsibility of being the lead innovative force in your institution, but it allows your organization to remain flexible, helps you to identify unexpected solutions to essential problems, and more efficiently utilize the creative potential of your employees. Ask yourself: “When will we invent the future?”

Special thanks to Janel Kinlaw (@jcwlib) for bringing the NPR story to my attention.