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Ideas Made to Matter

Innovation

What bored college students can teach you about innovation

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When colleges and universities go on break, the number of crowdfunding projects posted on Kickstarter increases by up to 45 percent.

That’s one of the findings in “Slack Time and Innovation,” a study co-authored by MIT Sloan associate professor Christian Catalini. The authors write that “uninterrupted blocks of time are critical for developing high-potential ideas” — results that apply not only to students on winter vacation, but also to the creative minds in the corporate world.

“The slack time provided by the breaks offers uninterrupted periods where students can focus [and] push their projects further, and team coordination is easier,” Catalini and his co-authors write. “In the absence of slack, these ideas are likely to stay undeveloped for a longer period of time or not be developed at all (in the same way employees at a firm may have ideas about improving a product or service, but may not have the time and resources to develop them until they are offered the opportunity to do so in a structured way).”

The number of Kickstarter campaigns started during school breaks increased by 45 percent.

Catalini’s research focus includes the economics of equity crowdfunding and startup growth. For this study, he and his co-researchers looked at more than 165,000 Kickstarter campaigns launched in 10,000 cities between April 2009 and April 2015.

The cities were chosen from locations listed on Kickstarter’s website, and for their proximity (5 miles) to the top 200 colleges listed in U.S. News & World Report. For example, Ann Arbor, Michigan, was included because it’s home to the No. 27 ranked University of Michigan.

Based on their research, here are some of the pros, cons, and applications for slack time at your office.

Pushing boundaries with a safety net

Unlike constrained, dedicated work time — or in the case of the students, classes and studying — slack time allows for experimentation “with new ideas, products, strategies, and markets that would otherwise be considered too risky to engage in under a traditional cost benefit analysis,” Catalini and his co-authors write.

Using slack time, employees don’t feel as much pressure to deliver on an idea that may or may not come to fruition. Without a set deadline or standard worktime obligations, employees can stretch their inventiveness and push boundaries without worrying about staying on task or interrupting the overall mission of their company. 

“In the presence of slack,” the researchers write, “failure of an innovative project is less likely to lead to a loss of legitimacy within the market and to consequences for the managers involved, as downside risk can be absorbed by the organization without constituting a threat to its long-run survival.”

Pet projects with lower standards

According to the paper, slack time encourages new ideas, but can also cause people to focus on their own personal projects, use less effort, and also not be as selective about project standards. What can an organization do to balance slack time with project value? Catalini and his co-researchers point to Kickstarter’s approach for dealing with a similar problem.

In May 2012, Kickstarter increased requirements for posting certain types of projects after a series of design and technology campaigns delivered products late or failed to deliver a product at all.

The updated qualifications now require that project creators provide information about their own background and experience, as well as a manufacturing plan and functional prototype.

The authors also write about LinkedIn’s “[in]cubator” program, in which “not only are projects screened by top executives before entry, but the company has also adopted a milestone-based approach to ensure the quality of projects at different stages in their evolution.”

Slack time solutions

When it comes to applying an overarching slack time policy to your company, it’s not a one-size-fits-all plan.

On one hand, the researchers suggest, it can take the form of a sabbatical, “offering specific individuals the possibility to experiment with extremely risk and novel ideas for an extended period of time.”

Google used to offer “20 percent time” and now has an “Area 120” policy that gives employees longer stretches of time to work on an idea and build a project team, the co-authors write, while Steve Jobs had a group of “pirate” employees who worked offsite on the first Mac computer.

It’s also important to remember that a new or complex idea will need all hands on deck — or at least a few dedicated sets.

“A key challenge for many organizational approaches to slack time is that radical new ideas may require coordination and resources that span the organization,” according to the research. “The more complex the idea, the more likely that ‘overlapping slack’ between team members with complementary skills and perspectives will be critical for its success.” 

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