Serendipity Day: Beyond 20%

A couple of years ago I outlined an idea for the staff at Education Technology Services that would allow for mini sabbaticals. The idea was met with lots of nodding and lots of questions — it was fairly simple … you share an idea and how much time you need to work on it and I figure out a way to turn you lose with it. The only caveats were that it couldn’t be more than a week and you had to come back with a product to share. Lots of people threatened to actually take me up on the offer, but in the end exactly zero people did.

I always wondered why. I still don’t know. Maybe it is time to dust off the idea?  I was reminded about it after reading, NPR tries something new: A day to let managers step away and developers play.  I really wonder what would happen if we twisted it so it wasn’t about some sort of structured approach and instead something more like what NPR is doing?

NPR is experimenting with something called “Serendipity Day,” wherein everyone on the technology side abandons their day jobs to work on…whatever they want. Bugs that need squashing, scratches that need itching — the ideas that never get to the top of a to-do list. The managers step back, available only if the workers need anything. (I need a designer, I need a room, I need a bagel.) The only rule: In the end, you have to share your work.

“It turns out that that one day of pure, undiluted autonomy has led to a whole array of fixes for existing software, a whole array of ideas for new products, that otherwise had never emerged,” Pink says in the talk. He argues that motivation derives from autonomy, mastery, and purpose: the desire to control one’s own destiny, to get better at something, and to serve a greater good.

(Via NPR tries something new: A day to let managers step away and developers play » Nieman Journalism Lab.)

Clearly we’d have to do some planning, just as NPR has done, but I wonder what kind of participation I would see in my own organization. Seriously, it is a great idea and I wonder if I’d have any takers?

This post also appears at my PSU Blog. Sorry for any multiple linking.

9 thoughts on “Serendipity Day: Beyond 20%

  1. I think you need just one person to take off and do it. Then go through the entire process so that the others “get the idea” of what is expected. Kind of…

  2. Consider it taken. I would love to be able to do this in the motion gfx/video production world. A whole day to play with lighting? Yes, please. A whole day to mess around in After Effects or Maya? Yes, please. A whole day to make a short film instead of a training video? Yes, please.

  3. I’ve also heard of this referred to as a “fedex day” because you have to ship something, over night. The book Drive by Daniel Pink touches on this concept a lot, although it is not the focus of the book. The discussion in Drive is primarily framed around the idea of letting people work on something they’re passionate about and basically setting your engineers loose. There are several mentions of Google and other large companies that have embraced the idea of 20% time and what some of the positive benefits have been. An example is 3M’s Post-It notes, the company’s most popular/successful product.

      • Ah, yes. I read your commentary but skimmed the NPR quote. 🙂 Now I see that they are referring to Drive. I think it’s an excellent read. I do a 3.5hr commute twice weekly so I consume audiobooks voraciously, and I found Pink’s book to be immensely enjoyable. It definitely helped me to articulate a lot of things I was feeling but didn’t have the proper vocabulary for in terms of being fulfilled (or not..) by your work.

  4. I think one of the challenges to widespread adoption of this sort of practice, despite its proven success, is that many people confuse that which is urgent (eg – I need to reply to this email) with what is important (eg – our procedure is outdated and inefficient), so they have trouble making time for new projects or ideas. That said, I’d take an opportunity like this.

    Oh, and Richard Branson on “intrapreneurs” is a similar idea, and also a great term 🙂

  5. I think some people might be doing this anyway. Those that are willing to explore some new ground might not feel the need to seek permission.

    I think there are two sides of the coin here. On one side, I could argue that anything I would want to do a sabatical on is really just part of my job, so taking a sabatical is just a time management issue.

    The other part of this is letting people really work on whatever they want, even if at the outset it looks like there is an obvious allignment to the goals of the organization or doesn’t fit into an existing project. That’s were the true serendipity comes into play.

    • Brad, I also believe people are doing this already — as a matter of fact Brian Young stopped in to see me this morning as he was on his way to day two of the Hot Team sabbatical he and a few others are engaged in at the moment. Part of the thinking here is to give people the freedom to express energy around their ideas and their relationship to the future of the organization. I want people to have the space to experiment with new thought while gaining a bit of freedom … and having access to resources around them — people, technology, spaces, etc.

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