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Inspiring Innovation: Three Ways to Make Unstructured Time Work

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Unstructured time is a key tool in many companies’ efforts to spur innovation.  The idea is simple: give employees time and freedom to explore ideas they are passionate about and they will generate new and innovative products and services.

Yet unstructured time does not always automatically lead to constructive innovation. At Intuit, we’ve been working on fine-tuning the unstructured time experience for many years now.  On one hand, it’s about trust and empowering people to do great things.  On the other, it is about providing enough strategic direction and innovation tools to make unstructured time a truly productive experience.

Intuit has had great success in using unstructured time to unleash the passion of our employees. Last year we counted $100M in new revenue from product offerings that didn’t exist three years ago, and much of that was the fruit of unstructured time.

But carving out 10 percent of your time to work on things you’re most passionate about can be tricky.  Here are three ways we’ve learned to make unstructured time work a little better:

  1. Batch Your Time: Although mathematically equal, 40 hours every 10 weeks can be much better than four hours per week.  If deadlines are looming on core projects stealing all of your focus, negotiate a block of time that falls after your peak project crunch or “season.”  At Intuit, we encourage our people to carve out large batches of time to focus on their unstructured time ideas.  When innovation writer Braden Kelly observed our batching practice he penned the term for this as an “innovation vacation.”
  2. Build a Small Team: Who says you have to go it alone?  Find a small team of equally energetic and persistent adventurers. You might need someone with skills different from your own to take your vision to reality. Or, you might just need extra brainpower.  The inspiration you can get from working with a team could be just what’s needed to make an unstructured time project come to life.
  3. Don’t Innovate in a Vacuum: It’s vital to create some structured activity for your unstructured time project.  One way to do this is to join innovation contests and idea jams that spur teams to work continuously for one or two days on an idea they want to move forward.  If your company or department doesn’t already have jams, host one yourself.  At Intuit, these events are so widespread even our human resources department has jammed on some ideas that are improving how they work.

Unstructured time alone isn’t enough to spur innovation; it has to be part of a broader innovation process and culture.  But when done right it can lead to breakthrough ideas and products.

Photo: An Intuit employee takes advantage of unstructured time. 

This post also appeared on LinkedIn. Follow Brad Smith and other thought leaders on LinkedIn.

Brad Smith

Intuit President and CEO Brad Smith has his head in the cloud. He’s the driving force behind Intuit’s transformation to connected services. When not spending time with his wife and two daughters, Smith plays the saxophone and guitar and practices karate. Don’t expect him to quit his day job. Follow him on LinkedIn and on Twitter @IntuitBrad

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