How to Take Google's "Twenty Percent" Time to the Next Level

How to make time for company-wide side projects.
Managing Editor and Producer, Behance Inc.
March 28, 2013

Like many agencies, B-Reel became concerned when it noticed that interesting internal ideas were being squashed by the steady stream of client work. Sure, the creative restraints of contract deadlines can lead to additional innovation (and pay the bills), but it can also suffocate other ideas.

“When you constantly have client work, it’s easy to let your other ideas become zombies.” says B-Reel creative director Riccardo Giraldi.

So they wondered, what would happen if they made themselves the client? What if they created an entire product division, meant to execute internal “what if…” and “wouldn’t it be cool…” ideas?

Think of it as a take on Google’s “20 percent” time, but fit within a small company. It’s a structure fluid enough to foster free-flowing collaboration and a model they think can be duplicated by others.

The structure is always changing, but here’s how B-Reel makes those internal ideas into full-fledged projects like mind-control cars or a video game that makes it impossible to stand still:

1. Capture loose ideas as “sparks.”

Ideas stemming from internal conversations are recorded in a company-wide Google Doc as a “spark.” B-Reel advises that you record every idea, no matter how trivial.

“Maybe an idea seems like a bad fit because we don’t see the opportunities, or maybe because the market is not ready, or the technology is not ready,” says B-Reel executive producer Clemens Brandt. “But having this pool of sparks is a really strong asset.”

2. Improve the idea.

On a weekly basis, Giraldi and Brandt comb through the sparks and select the ones that have potential to be turned into internal projects or experiments. To determine this, they ask themselves a handful of questions:

  • Is it scalable?
  • Is there a market here?
  • Can it eventually help our clients?
  • Will it build buzz or press?
  • Can it become a stand-alone product?

They then assemble an internal team to execute the idea. Participants are assigned according to interest, not job title, and are often designers or developers with some downtime between projects.

3. Suggest a short experiment.

The team delivers an “experiment suggestion” to a rotating board of nine senior employees. Each experiment suggestion must list its measurements for success as well as the opportunities for the firm. The board approval acts as a reality check against groupthink by subjecting the ideas to people who’ve never seen them before.

4. Execute a limited test of the idea.

Now, the fun part. All experiments have a strict limit of two to three weeks and are given resources just like any client project. Some projects can be done with just one person, others require a larger team.

“At the same time, rules are meant to be broken,” says Giraldi. “If one project we had showed a lot of potential, we would gain the confidence to invest a little more time and hours.”

5. Analyze the results and measure success.

After the experiment is over, the firm looks back at the original experiment suggestion document and measure its success.

“Sometimes new doors open and new opportunities appear. Sometimes it’s hard for direct evaluation between our expectation and what happens at the end,” says Giraldi. Mainly, they ask: Did the firm gain knowledge? Did a product emerge? A chance for good press?

This article originally appeared on 99u.com

Photo credit: B-Reel

Sean Blanda is the associate editor and producer of 99U.