Research in innovation and creativity shows that giving employees unstructured time — on company time — pays off.

A theme that many of the speakers at last week’s World Innovation Forum in New York City returned to again and again was how companies can think about the systematization of innovation.

Author Daniel Pink spoke in particular to the practical problem of designing reward systems that encourage innovative activity, for which traditional “carrot and stick” programs are ineffective. Pink highlighted a well known study conducted in the 1990s by team of researchers led by Harvard Business School's Teresa Amabile.

Amabile’s study went like this: Researchers presented 460 works of art from 23 visual artists to an independent group of evaluators. Each artist contributed 10 commissioned and 10 non-commissioned works. The results were striking. Though technically the commissioned and non-commissioned works were comparable, the commissioned works were judged to be significantly less creative.

For most of us, Pink went on to say, all of the work we do for our employers is “commissioned work.” He encouraged managers to follow the examples of Google, Atlassian, Intuit, and others in making “non-commissioned work” — unstructured time for employees to pursue independent projects — a regular part of a company’s schedule. It’s a concrete way, he said, to reward innovative activity and benefit from employees’ creativity and insights.

Also highlighted at the Forum were success stories from Pfizer (see “ Getting Rid of the Busy Work so You Can Get to Work” by Jordan Cohen, head of pfizerWorks), Zappo’s (see Delivering Happiness by founder Tony Hsieh), and the Portsmouth (England) City Council, all exemplifying the concept of innovation not as ideation and creativity, but rather as process, working within the system, and responsiveness to customer needs. IESE scholar Paddy Miller referred to it as “Escape from Brainstorm Island.”

7 Comments On: Why Giving Employees Paid, Unstructured Time Pays Off

  • Stephen Anfield | June 15, 2011

    Great article. I’ve been lucky to find a work environment like this, and I would have to say that it works! If only more companies followed this…

    Thanks for sharing this!

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  • riccardo | July 21, 2011

    Very interesting article! All the companies by now should be heading towards this way, the dynamics of innovation have become a daily necessity to all. At the same time there are also cultural factor to take into consideration and to properly manage to effectively implement this

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