Nerdism Gone Wild

This morning I read one of Casey Coleman’s recent blogs called “Innovation Happens.” She poses the questions: Have you ever wondered how and when innovation happens? Can managers demand it? Can we put it in our project plans? Can we just re-prioritize it when we get too busy? Is innovation, much like creativity, neither intentional or something we can turn on and off? Does it just happen?

In her blog she references the classic “Google way” in which engineers are granted “20-percent time” to work on projects related to the company but of personal interest. As she notes: “20 percent time is so successful that about half of Google’s new product launches originate from what engineers create during their 20-percent time” including Gmail and Google News.

While 20-percent time works for Google, what factors make it a success? Google naturally attracts motivated, curious people and has an open working environment with a substantial infrastructure with technical support – is this type of general culture/environment a prerequisite for success to the degree they have experienced? Certainly, if you are working with a very talented individual and give them some open time to “do their thing” you might get a product of genius – but is this entirely an exception and not any rule that can be replicated to some degree outside of a place like Google?

How about within the government? If Steve Ressler can create Govloop using a Ning platform in his spare time, what would happen if this was implemented even on a small level within agency offices? Does it have to happen after hours? Is it already happening (during the day in an organized way)?

Perhaps this is best answered in Casey Coleman’s blog closing: “there’s solid evidence that innovation happens when employees have time and opportunity to investigate projects beyond their core duties. That does not mean that managers have lost control, or that employees are not working on behalf of the organization. Not all organizations recognize 20 percent time in their ops plan, but all organizations can create an environment that encourages how and when innovation happens.”

What is your experience?

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John Sporing

In my previous agency, everyone had one “developmental” element in their performance plan. These ranged from long-term research projects to making a presentation. While not everyone came up with business-changing ideas, I think it provided everyone an outlet for their more creative, innovative side (all of us being numbers oriented).

I do know that several new products did come out of that “down-time” and I plan to implement something similar in my new agency.


Love it. I’d love to see more government-wide calls to actions as well. For example, OMB needs help rethinking its collaboration platform tech and design – volunteer a couple hours a week at X site and share your ideas and get it done. Would be very successful.

Pat Rupert

Just a note – 3M has a similar program for product development – folks work part time independently up to the point where they need to consume more resources, then pitch the idea to coworkers/management.

Pat Rupert

The agency I work for does not provide a structure for this kind of development. Regardless, I have observed “motivated, curious people”, given the right tools, tackle tough problems and come up with clever solutions.
For this to be a structured part of an organization, the organization needs to be pretty clear what their ‘product’ is and who their ‘customer’ is. Once the work force is focused this way, the organization will find clever solutions. The hard part is getting the work force turned away from an optimized sub set of the organization to focusing on the whole organizations customer (can you say culture change).

Jim Harvey

I’ve harnessed a number of different tools for work that started as goofing off: Google maps, Twitter, even knowledge of Excel spreadsheets that were only tangentially (at best) related to work. I’d imagine since the federal workforce isn’t Google’s that managers need to identify on a case-by-case basis who tends to play or investigate in ways that may be helpful and who might not. One should be careful but open to allowing workers some free space to play around.