Over at the HBR blog, Julia Kirby offers up an innovation that is brilliant (and that I wish I’d thought of myself.)  You know how each year the MacArthur Foundation awards those famous genius grants? How about if organizations did something similar?

In a great post, Julia lays out the evidence that unstructured time and unofficial activity — for instance, the 20 percent time experiments of companies like Google, 3M, or Genentech — are ideal conditions for creativity. That’s why she encourages organizations to:

. . . be is inspired by the model of the MacArthur awards. If you’re in management, any slack time you give a talented employee to pursue an idea is a mini ‘genius grant.’ It doesn’t have to be a half-million dollars — a chunk of release time might suffice. The key, really, is the signal that such creativity is valued and the recognition that people tend to come up with great stuff when they’re allowed to take an occasional flyer.

Just as FedEx Days (which I write about in Drive) have begun to spread like crazy to companies beyond Atlassian, which invented them, I’m guessing that this idea will also go viral before too long.

9 Responses to “Idea of the day: Mini genius grants”

  1. Tracy Fuller says:

    Eric Maisel made a like-minded proposition in a recent Huffington Post column,”Adding Thinking to the School Day” (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-maisel-phd/adding-thinking-to-the-sc_b_743447.html )

    Here are a few excerpts:

    “We have a simple, doable suggestion to make with regard to radically reimagining the education of children. Let’s let our children actually think for 45 minutes a day….

    What happens during those 45 minutes? Students are invited to think big. They aren’t taught critical thinking skills or the principles of formal logic. They aren’t asked to create compelling arguments or innovate or brainstorm or problem-solve. Rather, they are invited to think big….

    The facilitator might pose a large question, have students write for 20 minutes in response to the question and then ask for volunteers to read their responses. There is a beauty and a power in spending 45 minutes this way. For fourth graders, a big question might be, “When is it okay to lie?” For seventh graders, a big question might be, “How do you decide if you should or shouldn’t support a war that your country is engaged in?” For ninth graders, a big question might be “How do you decide if space exploration is or isn’t an important societal goal?” For 12th graders, a big question might be, “Is happiness the opposite of sadness?”

    After each student reads his or her response, the facilitator need do nothing more than say, “Thank you.” She may want to do more because the student’s response gives her the opportunity to chat about some thinking skill or principle — for example, that new evidence may cause you to change your mind — but that “more” is not required or needed. This simple procedure of putting a big question on the table and reporting on your thoughts without fear of criticism or judgment are the essential ingredients of an effective thinking module.”

    I’m going to keep thinking about these ideas.

  2. Mark Levison says:

    Mini genius grants are great for employees of large corporations. However what we also need are mid sized genius grants for self employed consultants. I would love to be paid to spend every Friday working on my book (Neuroscience, Psychology and Behavioural economics applied to every day work – ok its not catchy).

    Heck if the MacArthur foundation wants to come calling I’m here.

  3. I love the concept of these 20% initiatives.

    Unfortunately, I have trouble seeing how a typical business can apply them.

    The notables that have attempted these 20%-style initiatives were (correct me if I’m wrong) in strong market positions, and were looking for ways to break out from ‘Good to Great’ or ‘Great to Greater’, with solid margins and commanding market positions.

    For organizations that have already trimmed all the fat to deal with the realities of the new economy, 20% time translates into 20%-slip in the mind of managers that are trying to execute on projects (whether this is true or not).

    How do organizations and companies avoid 20% time experiments turning into 20% overtime for the employees who try them? How do you convince managers that the 20% slip in their schedules is worth the long-term payback of a 20% time experiment?

  4. Gabe Heilig says:

    I ran my resume writing business in the Pentagon from 1993-2007 and before that ran a national resume company’s downtown DC office. My continuing observation is that people are bigger than their jobs. Bigger than their jobs require them to be. And, alas, bigger than their usually permit them to be.

    These mini-genius time grants are an acknowledge of that fundamental fact, which seems to elude many bosses. They love to tell their employees to “Think outside the box!”—and then when they do, reprimand them for not working at their tasks.

    Corporate America is not going to rescue this economy. Only smart people who either are “allowed” to be as smart and big as they truly are, or decide to do this as part of the Free Agent Nation—that’s where the juice in capitalism is and will be, especially now that the MegaCorporate model of capitalism is heading like Titanic for the iceberg.

    The bright ladies and lads with the right idea, who can live by their wits and make it work—that’s what will turn this economy around. If we can liberate enough of them, or they can figure out ways to liberate themselves. Otherwise, we’re fighting over deck chairs and views of the horizon.

  5. Dan, your post made me think of a few other natural places where micro-investments could stimulate macro-motivation.

    Example: what if we gave an every employee an annual sabbatical day (one day for each year of service) to pursue creative renewal instead of making that an infrequent benefit offered primarily to top management after very long periods of service?

    If we value the function (mini-grant, sabbatical, etc.) all we need to do is keep playing with the form to find something that fits with out respective environments since as others have noted above, 20% time won’t work for all. People should stop saying why they can’t adopt others’ approaches and instead focus on how they could adapt them to their own needs.

  6. Conor Shankman says:

    Check out the Awesome Foundation!

    This org. gives (micro) grants for great (though sometimes crazy) ideas!


  7. Monick Halm says:

    Some commenters made the point that the 20% rule may not work for big business. That’s possible. I think the Eric Maisel suggestion that Tracey Fuller, your first commenter, pointed out may work in a business setting. What if there were daily or weekly staff meetings devoted solely to thinking about big company related questions: how can our company be of more service in the community? What is the “stupidest” innovative thing we could do that just might work? How do we decide if Project X is an important company goal? Allowing and encouraging this thinking time could be revolutionary.

  8. Wow, these comments are just as good as the post!

    Personally, I don’t see to many companies changing their processes as quickly as needed. The 20% rule is great, but implementing to existing processes can be difficult.

    Like my Papa always said: “It’s easier to build a house from scratch than to renovate an old one.” The same applies to a companies and their processes, structures and people.

  9. Ed says:

    You should check out the Awesome Foundation that is trying to further the cause of Awesome through just such grants


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