Drive Employee Engagement With This One Simple Idea


Everyone struggles with “engagement,” that magical buzzword that keeps employees interested in their jobs, and makes the workplace a fun and challenging environment to drive to every morning. The most effective way to create engagement I’ve discovered involves establishing “Passion Projects,” or employee-created initiatives that improve or innovate government.

To begin, an employee is asked to propose something that they are really excited about, outside of their normal job responsibilities, that will enhance our organization’s products or services. Examples from my group include everything from our participation in a nationwide cyber-exercise to developing a week-long “boot camp” for new employees who join our team. Even becoming a Featured Blogger on Govloop could be considered a Passion Project, since it falls outside the normal expectations of the duties which I perform on a daily basis. And it is important to ensure the employee truly believes in the initiative; that it isn’t something “pushed down” on them from senior management.

A colleague of mine, Dustin Crossfield, the Director of Technology Services, has turned this into a formal process that he jokingly calls “The IT Fight Club.” Every three weeks, on a Friday afternoon, from 3:30-5:00, he purchases an ice cream cake and pulls together the brightest members of the organization. Those team members hold a sugar-powered brainstorming session to come up with the most disruptive projects to improve government IT. A team is assigned to the venture and each Friday they go to an offsite location to work, undisturbed, on their initiatives. Three weeks later, they return to the Friday afternoon “Fight Club” meeting to report on their progress. Participation is voluntary and the innovators are encouraged to focus on projects that are “low hanging fruit” with the lowest effort and smallest impact on the state’s IT infrastructure.

The very nature of Passion Projects makes them advantageous to the organization and the individual:

  1. Because the employee is working outside their normal job duties, Passion Projects are a new opportunity to build their knowledge, skills and abilities while becoming more in-touch with the mission and goals of the establishment.
  2. The organization benefits by getting a fresh perspective on old problems, especially when Passion Projects involve cross-functional teams. Previously unseen opportunities for optimization and issues that may have hindered performance may be uncovered by a fresh set of eyes on the problem.
  3. Passion Projects make every person in your organization a micro-leader and is an incredible way to identify “high potential employees;” because you’ll see who can naturally manage a project to completion, and who drops the ball.

To get started, invite your team to a 60-minute “find your passion” meeting. Explain what a Passion Project is and set the ground rules for the program. Use the rest of the time to brainstorm. In many cases, you’ll find that this first meeting will become a growing source of new enthusiasm for the team, and you may have a few employees that come up with several excellent ideas. –That’s a great problem to have! Keep track of the extra ideas for other team members that cannot come up with their own and ask them to “personalize” the project to put their own spin on it and help them become personally invested.

The best part of establishing a set of Passion Projects for your organization is that you may find that your employees come in early or work later, become more invested in their own success and take responsibility for their own work in ways that they never did before. Talk with your team today about their ideas for developing passion projects and you might be surprised with all the newfound creativity you unleash!

Daniel Hanttula is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

Good observation, but one very crucial caveat: Make sure they get to see it through. There aren’t many things more DIS-engaging than being passionate about a project that somehow becomes yesterday’s news with the arrival of new management, corporate restructuring, or a sudden loss of resources emanating from a new budget.

As long as you can make sure none of that stuff happens, you’re on the right track.

Daniel Hanttula

Mark, that’s such a great point… You’re building trust with your team by doing this, and if you let it fall by the wayside, as soon as the winds of change start blowing, it will be tough to ever rebuild that passion!


“…pulls together the brightest members of the organization. ” I would encourage that even the less bright members of the organization have the same chance to shine brighter.

Daniel Hanttula

Absolutely right Judith; Passion Projects will give every single person in the organization a chance to shine. I love how you put that.

Kahadija Baker

I came to work early today because my passion project was YWCA 2016 Stand Against Racism. I did not mind the time and effort to organize the event. Work is not work when its your passion!

Daniel Hanttula

Kahadija, you made me wish I had finished my article with “what are your Passion Projects?” -Your event is the PERFECT example of what I was talking about and I’m so glad you commented. Keep up the good work!

Daniel Hanttula

Carol, are you asking for engagement metrics? Do a quick Google for “The Gallup Q12 Engagement Questionnaire” it is nothing short of amazing!

Mark Hammer

My attention was drawn to this British report yesterday: http://www.linkedin.com/redir/redirect?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww%2Encbi%2Enlm%2Enih%2Egov%2Fbooks%2FNBK299335%2F&urlhash=ZjPe&_t=tracking_anet Report? HAH! This is a 450-page book prepared by the National Health Service. And, with the sole flaw of being published last year instead of yesterday, is about the most authoritative and comprehensive source on the topic of engagement you’re likely to find. The reference list includes links to most of the scholarly papers. Do note that it is an 83meg file. Apart from that, enjoy!.