By Sophie Warlitz
In recent years, many educators have begun implementing a so-called Genius Hour, a set amount of time where students can freely explore their interests and learn with purpose. The goal: give students unstructured time to find a passion, exercise creativity, learn to move past failure and frustration, and find intrinsic motivation.
While only a small addition to a curriculum, the success of the Genius Hour offers a glimpse of possibilities that are not limited to the education system. The student struggles that led to the Genius Hour are not so dissimilar from how professionals can feel in their jobs. The lack of flexible structures and time, and increasing stress levels from mountains of work can make it hard to spur innovative thinking.
As a solution, some companies have tried to replicate this free creative time. In fact, the Genius Hour project originated from corporate giant Google’s so-called “20% time, whose goal was to increase corporate innovation. Other companies such as Atlassian, Myplanet, Google, and 3M have implemented designated times for employees to pursue passion projects. While these have been largely successful, many other companies have failed, begging the question of why.
When taking a closer look at how schools have implemented the Genius Hour, it becomes evident that particular prerequisites are overlooked in a corporate environment that are just as necessary as they are in a school environment for the program's success.
1. Connect innovation expectations to your overall mission
It is crucial to connect free creative time to the overall mission and goals of the organization. This tells employees what kinds of ideas and internal projects you will find most valuable, and reminds them why this work is important. Without this, efforts to create a program that takes time and attention away from daily tasks may disingenuous.
As one high school social studies teacher writes, relating the Genius Hour project to the school’s goals and mission allowed her team to secure the administration’s support. You can take it a step further and provide success metrics to articulate the kinds of results and impact that you are seeking from your employee’s passion project time.
2. Unstructured time doesn’t have to be solitary
Just like a school, a company does not employ only one type of person. Some may require more structure and others have self-starter mentalities, and it is vital to recognize these differences.
Genius Hour teachers have emphasized the value of creating a support infrastructure for everyone involved in the program. Both peer mentors and teachers assist students in brainstorming, structuring, and implementing ideas. In both environments, this can help curb frustration after hitting a dead end and enable both students and employees to continue being productive during their creative free time. Working together with employees to create success measures provides accountability without inhibiting creativity and growth.
3. Create structures to review the suggestions and ideas that result
Arguably one of the most critical aspects of innovation “free time” is a structure where ideas can be logged, learnings can be tracked, and a path towards implementation is clear. Without this, employees can invest significant time and resources into ideas that the rest of the organization doesn’t have the opportunity to learn or benefit from.
Successful Genius Hour programs have built a back-end system where students track their progress and can provide feedback and ideas to the school—perhaps about the Genius Hour program, or perhaps about other ideas for improvement they have. Donna Harvey , a teacher who has used the Genius Hour in her classrooms, suggests a feedback process twice per school cycle, once at the beginning and once at the end. This, she writes, is “…an important step towards student engagement and empowerment which are essential to Genius Hour’s success.”
Allowing employees the time to be creative and pursue passions is not only an added perk to increase talent acquisition and retention, boost morale, and create an empowered culture, but also to enable employees to turn their great ideas into reality. While it is a short-term investment, the gains your company can reap far outweigh any potential costs. After all, you never know who will make the next Gmail or Post-It Note.
Sophie Warlitz is an associate at New Markets Advisors where she helps companies understand customer needs, build innovation capabilities, and develop plans for growth.