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Lots of people believe that a single individual can’t make a difference in an organization.

Lots of people, it turns out, are wrong.

Take the case of Jen Shefner. She’s an assistant vice president at Columbia Credit Union in Vancouver, WA, in charge of the credit union’s online and mobile services. Last month I met her at a conference, and she told me about a smart and simple innovation that she calls the “Genius Hour.”

Jen grooved on Google’s 20% time and Atlassian’s Fedex Days – and wanted to bring that sort of noncommissioned work to her department. Trouble is, the three folks on her staff handle phone calls and requests from credit union members and internal customers. They have to be available throughout the day. Breaking away for a 24-hour FedEx Day or an afternoon passion project – and leaving customers with an endlessly ringing help line – is a nonstarter. So Jen fashioned a solution.

Each week, employees can take a Genius Hour — 60 minutes to work on new ideas or master new skills. They’ve used that precious sliver of autonomy well, coming up with a range of innovations including training tools for other branches.

Of course, an hour a week for every employee isn’t much time. But it’s an hour more than most of us get. And Jen makes it work for at least three reasons.

The boss pitches in. Who answers the phone when an employee is on a Genius Hour? Jen does. That’s right. Jen steps up and does her staff’s jobs so they have time to do big think work. Imagine if all managers showed that level of integrity and commitment.

Implementation matters. Jen admits that “it’s hard for our industry to see ways to offer autonomy,” and for good reason – credit unions are highly regulated and by necessity must be conservative. As a result, good ideas often blossom – and then wither from inaction. Jen works like a fiend to see that the best ideas get implemented.

It’s on the schedule. Genius Hours aren’t ad hoc. They’re fixed on the departmental calendar. The hour, if not exactly sacred, is semi-sacred. In most organizations what gets scheduled gets done.  Genius Hours get scheduled, which why they get done.

“Great ideas come from every level,” Jen says. But she’s too modest to suggest that the Genius Hour itself is a great idea. It is.

When are you going to give it a try?

25 Responses to “The Genius Hour: How 60 minutes a week can electrify your job”

  1. Levi Spires says:

    Reading the title I thought I was going to read about managers answering customer service phones 60 minutes a week. However, a company offering paid time to learn is just as good.

    Why aren’t more organizations doing this?

  2. Brandy says:

    Ooh, how inspiring!

    As an entrepreneur, it’s just me around here. But time-management is essential – a designated Genius Hour would allow me the freedom to explore those crazy ideas that snap in my brain every week. I’m envisioning the wild benefits that the focused attention could have.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  3. Tevya says:

    Thanks Daniel! Like Brandy, I work at my home office. It’s just me, with some occasional help from my wife, when she isn’t managing our son. And like most self-employed people, I’m my own worst boss at times.

    I’m going to implement this, since 1hr/week is completely doable, and I’m sure it will help my productivity and spur my creativity for better results the rest of the week.

  4. scott says:

    Thanks for sharing this idea. I manage an IT help desk with 5 guys who are on the phone a lot. I will discuss this idea with my team to see how we can implement it.

    Scott

  5. C. A. Hurst says:

    Another great post. Thank you, Dan!

  6. Gary says:

    Excellent stuff very adaptable to different environments. Thanks

  7. Fortunately, I think it is a new trend. In short there will be more and more companies implementing these strategies.
    It would be nice to know the results these companies are achieving. That would be the best argument to push the other companies to do the same. Thanks Dan!

    Salva

  8. Tom Mackey says:

    This is a great idea and appreciate you sharing. Many of us do have some control of our schedules and can do this without permission. So, why don’t we — other than we haven’t thought of it?

    I think it is because we have a false notion of time. We think that time is short when it is long. If we think that it’s short, then learning has short term value. If we think it’s long, then the value we get from that one hour is almost endless.

  9. Red Denal says:

    It’s a matter of a habit. Great ideas are always there, waiting. I think we just need to find them.

  10. Thank you Daniel. This morning, in bed, I wrote you yet another “mental letter” ie wthout actually posting it, either here or in a letter with a postage stamp.
    It was (will be) about how you inspired me to set up my own magazine for the “We Generation” to be published in November, and a request to you for permission to quote (for a fee) from your brilliant book DRIVE
    My first scheduled “genius” hour on Thursday, will be about what I used to call displacement activities but will now be to work on entrepreneurial ideas such as my new fridge invention
    Yours ever
    Jenny Towndrow
    CREATIVITY INK PTY LTD

  11. Actively tapping into the sometimes latent genius of your employees is a surefire way to create buy in from them and generate new ideas that could help the company retain its competitive edge. It is the responsibility of Managers to create such an environment.

  12. Pilar Orti says:

    “The boss pitches in. Who answers the phone when an employee is on a Genius Hour? Jen does.”

    Thanks for this inspiring story – someone who really SHOWS they care and truly supports the development of others.

  13. Great to hear an example of a company investing in their employees. I just started working for a new company and am extremely impressed by how they, like Jen’s company are willing to invest in their employee’s development. Last week I participated in my first IDEA (Inktel Direct Excellence Academy) class where I was paid, for 4 hours to learn about emotional intelligence! Not only did I learn a ton but it motivated me to work harder. I hope more companies are inspired by your post to implement programs like this and the Genius Hour.

  14. Will Thomas says:

    Jen faces a similar environment to what government employees experience: hard to offer autonomy because the organization is highly regulated and designed to be conservative. She’s shown, though, that those factors can be an excuse, rather than a valid reason, for failing to innovate. Individuals can take small steps that don’t break the rules but do break down barriers.

  15. I love this concept. While it is nothing new and follows the ROWE format, it is a great example of managers using ROWE in environments where previously dismissed. I will certainly use this example in my OB courses this fall.

  16. Anthony Dina says:

    Inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Brandt Page says:

    I am having this discussion with my management team right now…here at http://launchleads.com

    We are discussing if we think the bulk of the workload of our employees is Mechanical, or Cognitive. We fully agree on the concepts in Drive, but now we are trying to see if we are on the rudimentary level, or cognitive….interesting discussion…I think we are concluding that we are on the cognitive side….

  18. Christian says:

    Very interesting and tempting, but …

    Just read this great old (2009!) post from Paul Graham underlining the HUGE difference between a maker’s schedule and a manager’s schedule http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html

    Dedicating 60 minute a week is an easy step for managers … not ideal for makers..

  19. statik proje says:

    nice and usefull article, thanks.

  20. This would be fantastic professional development in schools – it could be timetabled at the start of year and the results shared at the end.

  21. Love these ideas where employees get time to innovate! I am planning to do something like this this year in my fourth grade classroom. Giving students the time to work on something they are interested in or passionate about is just as important as any piece of curriculum for which they need to be held responsible. So – wish me luck in my implementation of this sort.

  22. Really brilliant suggestion. At some level we all know that those closest to the point of production or delivery or process are often the best to suggest improvements.

    For the leader and manager the challenge is in my experience to make sure they are receptive and willing to act on ideas

  23. Denise says:

    I just found this awesome blog post, and I wrote about my plan for a genius hour with my junior high students. http://mrsdkrebs.edublogs.org/2011/11/02/genius-hour/

    I am so excited! I know wonderful things will come out of it. Teachers need to get out of the way of their students; we so often hold them back.

    Thanks,
    Denise

  24. Raymond says:

    5pm-6pm Friday after your 9-5 day. Genius!

  25. Gallit Zvi says:

    Thank you so much for this!
    Several teachers and I have started Genius Hour in the classroom now and the students love it! They get to learn about something they are passionate about every Monday for one hour! Love it!

    I am curious where the term “genius hour” comes from…would love to hear from you!

    Thanks,
    Gallit Zvi
    Grade 5/6 teacher

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