Giving people time and resources to pursue innovation projects can produce extraordinary outcomes — but only if you match your “slack strategy” to employee type.

The idea of using slack resources — in the form of time, technology, and support — to bolster employee innovation falls in and out of favor. The return on slack innovation programs can be prodigious: 3M Co. attributes the development of the Post-it Note to its 1948 decision to allow employees to devote 15% of their paid time to side projects; and Google says its “20% rule,” which upped the ante on slack time devoted to innovation, yielded Gmail, AdSense, and Google Earth. But few, if any companies, have stuck with time off for innovation and other slack-based programs for as long as 3M. Even Google has reportedly waxed and waned in its commitment to its 20% rule.1

Given the significant investment that slack-based innovation programs require, the decision to adopt one shouldn’t be made off the cuff. But what are the factors underlying that decision and how should such programs be designed? To begin to answer these questions, we conducted in-depth interviews of knowledge workers in different industries to understand what motivated them to take risks and explore new ideas, and, more specifically, whether and how slack resources might have contributed to their innovativeness. We then created and refined an empirical model based on the factors and relationships that appear to influence employee innovation and tested it using a sample group consisting of 427 employees from North American companies.

We found that different types of employees respond in different ways to slack innovation programs; that different kinds of slack resources are better suited to certain types of employees than they are to others; and that different kinds of slack innovation programs produce different kinds of innovation. Companies can use these findings to design more effective slack innovation programs and maximize their returns on slack resources.

A Tale of Four Employees

Every employee is unique, but for the purposes of this research, we focused on two employee dimensions that are particularly relevant to innovation: level of job expertise and how innovative people consider themselves to be. This yielded four types of employees who form the boundaries of the workforce at large. (See “A Decision Tree for Designing Slack Innovation Programs.

References

1. S. Subramanian, “Google Took Its 20% Back, But Other Companies Are Making Employee Side Projects Work for Them,” Fast Company, Aug. 19, 2013.

2. N. Anderson, K. Potočnik, and J. Zhou, “Innovation and Creativity in Organizations: A State-of-the-Science Review, Prospective Commentary, and Guiding Framework,” Journal of Management 40, no. 5 (July 1, 2014): 1297-1333.

3. E.L. Deci, and R.M. Ryan, “Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior”; and M. Gagné and E.L. Deci, “Self-Determination Theory and Work Motivation,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 26, no. 4 (June 2005): 331-362.

4. Researchers more often use the term “prosocial” to describe this kind of motivation, but “social” conveys an appropriate intuitive meaning. See A.M. Grant and J.W. Berry, “The Necessity of Others Is the Mother of Invention: Intrinsic and Prosocial Motivations, Perspective Taking, and Creativity,” Academy of Management Journal 54, no. 1 (Feb. 1, 2011): 73-96.

5. R.D. Austin and C. Stormer, “Miles Davis: Kind of Blue,” Harvard Business School case no. 609-050 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2008).