Freedom to experiment is the best employee educational program you’ll ever have

While most everyone has their own perspective about what makes up a solid foundation for innovation inside organizations, one of the key ingredients necessary for innovation to happen in any type of environment is freedom.

Freedom can mean many things. For example, it can mean “chaos” to many; inside organizations this is the most common association. Already, I can here most managers say “Freedom?! If I give my people freedom they won’t get anything done!” Sadly, this is a common reaction everywhere, and it’s the wrong way to look at freedom.

As I’ve previously written about Google’s culture of innovation, most of the activities they do to drive innovation can be easily borrowed and applied in the vast majority of organizations; they even say so themselves.

So, if we take one of Google’s most well known innovation driving tactics, a good example of what freedom looks like in practice is their famous 20% time, a set time all employees have to work on projects they choose; not ones that are pushed down by management. Fundamentally, 20 percent time is a check and balance on imperial managers, a way to give people permission to work on stuff they aren’t supposed to work on. It helps bring to life the Steve Jobs maxim that “you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy.”

It is that last bit “a way to give people permission” to work on other stuff that is key because this is precisely what doesn’t happen in non-innovative organizations: people have permission to speak up, question, take action and play.

Looking at freedom from another perspective, since most of the projects that people choose to work on require them to practice or develop skills outside of those they use on a day-to-day basis, the most valuable takeaway from 20% time, or any tactic that gives people freedom to think and experiment, isn’t the products and features that get created; it’s the things people learn when they try something new.

Again, for the purpose of employee engagement,  innovation and long-term organizational resilience, freedom to think and do is the singular most important ingredient you need to provide your employees.

Bottom line: Time for experimentation will not yield wow innovations all the time, but it will always yield smarter employees. So if you have a practice similar to Google’s 20% time, think of it as the best employee educational program you’ll ever have.