[Slack to the Rescue] What You Want to Do

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Innovation and Motivation: Slack to the Rescue

Innovation through slack

This is a seriesof 5 blogposts on slack. Slack is work time in which an employee is free to work on whatever he wants. In this series, I’ll present slack at 3M, Gore, Google, Atlassian, Semco and it-agile, write about the necessary company culture, point out several pitfalls, explain innovation and motivation as the main reasons to introduce slack, and show the possible future of slack from my point of view.

Let’s start with an accident.

Invention by Accident

What do the following things have lin common: corn flakes, microwave ovens, potato chips, penicilin, and Post-it notes? They weren’t invented by research and development departments, but by accident.

Take a look at the Post-it note. This 76 mm square sized piece of paper, which sticks to different surfaces when attached, is sold in over 100 countries these days. The technique behind the stickies was already developed in 1968 by Spencer Silver, scientist at 3M. He invented the adhesive which is used on the Post-it notes’ backside. But it was not until 1973 that his colleague Art Fry, also scientist at 3M, invented the Post-it notes. As a church choir member, he was looking for a better solution to keep his bookmarks in his hymnal. He experimented with Spencer’s adhesive and finally came up with the big idea, the Post-it note.

Even the famous bright yellow colour of the Post-it notes were an accident. The Post-it team initially used the scrap paper from the lab next door – which was yellow.

“By accident” might be misleading here. It’s more like doing experiments which eventually lead to innovation. But nobody told Silver and Fry what they had to do. They just needed some time for their experimentation.

Gore’s 10 % Dabble Time

Experimentation needs time. At W. L. Gore and Associates, every employee is given a so called dabble time, which is half a day per week. They are free to work on anything they want. Which means free time for experimentation.

Outcome?

  • 1969: Gore-Tex, a waterproof and breathable fabric, a ground-breaking invention which dominated clothing industries for centuries.
  • 1995: Elixir guitar strings, one of the best guitar strings available.

And those are only 2 of over 1000 products in their portfolio.

So That’s Slack Then?

Slack, or slack time, is a part of an employees work time where he can do whatever he wants to do, as long as it’s related to work. There are no deadlines to meet, no backlogs to pull work from, no (or only a very few) rules to follow. One could create a new product, invent a new service, fix some broken stuff, rearrange their tools, reflect about one’s work, imagine new visions, hack a business plan, experiment with new stuff – whatever feels the right thing to do and which never got done because of lack of time.

3M’s 15 %

If you can achieve what Gore achived with 10 % slack, why not up the ante and go with 15 %? 3M did. Their employees are allowed to spent up to 15 % of their time on whatever they want to work on. Not only did they invent their Post-it notes, but also their famous Scotch Tape this way.

Google’s 20 %

The concept of having slack in an organization goes back to the 1960’s, but these days the most buzz about slack comes from Google.

Google has the so called 20 percent time. It means, 20 % of his time a Google employee is allowed to spend on whatever he wants to do. Lots of Google’s products have their origins in the 20 percent time: Gmail, Google News, even Google’s shuttle buses. Agile programming started as a grouplet, as well as the “Testing on the toilet” initiative.

“But when you give engineers the chance to apply their passion to their company, they can do amazing things.” — The Google Way: Give Engineers Room, NYTimes article by Bharat Mediratta, Software Engineer at Google

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About Bernd Schiffer

Bernd Schiffer is consultant, trainer and coach for Agile Software Development in Melbourne, Australia. Learn more about him on his personal homepage, have a look at his company Bold Mover, or contact him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, XING or LinkedIn.

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