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How ‘Doing Your Own Thing’ Gets Innovation Moving

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Imagine this: A bunch of your employees are spinning around in their chairs, sticking pencils in the ceiling and shooting spitballs at one another. You open a conference room door only to find a squad of misanthropes playing Angry Birds, Tweeting and watching kittens play the piano on YouTube.

But these nightmares don’t represent the reality of “unstructured time,” a program giving employees the freedom to work on a product or idea even if it is only peripherally related to their company’s business. Unstructured time is more likely to inspire employees to invent something useful for your customers or other employees than to scour YouTube for silly animal clips.

The next big idea for your company and your career may be hiding in you or your employees – in the depth of all of that experience and information in your neural network. To help surface those big ideas, some companies now offer unstructured time as part of their innovation initiatives. The amount of time and the approach to unstructured time varies from company to company.

At Intuit, employees may spend 10 percent of their working hours on unstructured time – the “jet fuel” powering our grass roots innovation engine. By giving our employees some time to explore their areas of passion to drive growth, we are becoming increasingly recognized as an innovation leader. In fact, Fortune magazine recognized our unstructured time efforts when it ranked us number 19 on its list of Best Companies to Work For list. And the business and innovation best-seller “Drive,” by Dan Pink, references Intuit’s unstructured time program as a key to driving successful and continuous innovation within a large company.

Consider the success of SnapTax, which allows people to prepare and file simple tax returns on their iPhone in a matter of minutes. First conceptualized by a small unstructured time team back in 2009, the “just snap a picture of your W2” idea was picked up by our Consumer Tax division and has become one of Intuit’s most interesting new offerings. We’ve also scored big unstructured time wins with Intuit Payment Network, TurboTax for the iPad, View My Paycheck and Intuit Brainstorm, to name a few.

Most unstructured time programs evolve as employees and their leaders customize the program to suit their company’s culture. As part of the evolution at Intuit, employees are stepping up to champion the program, volunteering to mentor colleagues looking for ways to use their unstructured time.

These champions are often available to add certain skills to a project, or to help unstructured time teams and individuals at a particular Intuit location. Employees can easily find the unstructured time champions and their areas of assistance on the collaboration Web application called Intuit Brainstorm. 

Flexibility is also important in an unstructured time program. Some employees might want to spend a certain number of hours of each day or each week working on their unstructured time project. Others might want to bank their time and use most of it during one specific time period.

Unstructured time puts innovation to work. How are you using your unstructured time? Use the comments section below to share your ideas for making the most of unstructured time.

Jeff Zias

Finding a way to drive innovation at the grassroots gets Jeff out of bed during the work week. To keep things interesting outside of work, he surfs in Santa Cruz and plays music around the San Francisco Bay Area with a couple of local jazz groups.

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  • http://www.TerriGriffith.com Terri Griffith

    Working on an article where I mention Intuit’s unstructured time. Could you tell me when the process came to Intuit?