The Benefits of Side Projects

The creation of 3M’s Scotch Tape, the Declaration of Independence and Metallica: just three of the stories Ben Casnocha retells to show the importance of innovation through side projects.

Is giving away a day a week of your employees’ time worth it? Google executives seem to think so. They cite first the enormous goodwill generated internally: “20-percent time sends a strong message of trust to the engineers,” says Marissa Mayer, Google vice president of search products and user experience. Then there is the actual product output which of late includes Google Suggest (auto-filled queries) and Orkut (a social network). In a speech a couple of years ago, Mayer said about 50 percent of new Google products got their start in 20 percent time.

Jack Hipple, a consultant who works with companies on innovation, says corporate support for employees’ natural curiosity can lead to better new product ideas than traditional focus groups: “You have to have some vehicle for side-project time because senior managers or customers don’t know enough about the future to know what’s coming.”

Casnocha notes that not all companies can offer side-project time, especially startups:

There are too many essential tasks that need to get done simply to survive.

Tom Kinnear, a professor of entrepreneurial studies at the University of Michigan, says Google and 3M both could support experimenting after their core products became profitable: “At the outset there are such tight margins it’s hard to allow for side projects. The pressure from your investors to focus, focus, focus is just overwhelming.”