Still, it’s a rare perk at most companies, technical or not. For starters, it’s expensive. 3M invests more than $1 billion in R&D alone; 15 percent of that starts to be a sizable outlay. Author Scott Berkun writes about business innovation. He says these policies only work when the outcomes are backed. “Many companies have tried to emulate the ‘20 percent time idea’ but failed because they remained conservative about supporting the new ideas,” he says. And experts agree that this kind of nudging probably works best at companies where there’s a high level of creative competitiveness; that is, where impressing peers is just as important as the innovation itself.
Some have tried to emulate 3M's program but failed because they wouldn't support the new ideas.
3M’s got that in spades. Once a year, about 200 employees from dozens of divisions make cardboard posters describing their 15 percent time project as if they were presenting volcano models at a middle school science fair. They stand up their poster, then hang out next to it, awaiting feedback, suggestions, and potential co-collaborators. Wayne Maurer is an R&D manager in 3M’s abrasives division and calls it a chance for people to unhinge their “inner geek.” He elaborates: “For technical people, it’s the most passionate and engaged event we have at 3M.”