Twice a year, Purdue University’s IT Team hits pause on all current projects for a week focused on innovation. Dubbed “Living Dead Week” because it takes place during the campus Dead Week, the time students have free of classes to prepare for finals, every member of the IT staff has the freedom to pursue one project of their choice, completely autonomously and free from distraction. At the end of the week, everyone is required to show how they used their time by presenting on it to the team. The best projects are rewarded with trophies, which the winners proudly display on their desks.
Here’s we love this idea:
It’s one thing to tell your staff that they can spend 20% of their time on innovation. It’s another thing entirely to take away their day-to-day work for a week to allow them to. Carving out this time for the whole staff is critical. Not only does it bring the team together, it gets rid of the everyday distractions that come up so that employees can focus on building out their idea without being pulled into a meeting, given a project to turn around right away, or any number of other tasks that would likely be prioritized above innovation.
This takes both leadership buy-in and planning. Make sure this “time off” is scheduled into the regular project schedule, so that delivery is planned either before or after it and expectations are managed.
If you want your employees to be innovative, you need to give them the freedom to pursue inspiration from a variety of places, even if it seems like a crazy idea at the time. This completely self-directed time allows them to try to bring those ideas from concept to reality without the interference of a boss who may or may not understand, or agree with, that vision. It also teaches how to take an inspiration that may seem abstract and outside the box, and execute on it in a realistic way that can drive the organization forward.
Accountability, Mixed With Bragging Rights
Some might be nervous about the idea of giving employees a completely self-directed week off of work. Purdue accounts for this by requiring every employee to present what they worked on at the end of the week. But more importantly is how those presentations are framed – the environment is a supportive one that features them as a “look at this awesome thing I worked on” talk rather than a requirement to prove that they were using their time productively. The best project are rewarded with bragging rights and trophies, which pushes employees to plan for their Living Dead Week projects throughout the year to earn the recognition from their peers.
Freedom to Fail
It’s important to note, however, that even though everyone has to present on their projects, employees at Purdue aren’t judged on the success or failure. With just a week of time, they have to be realistic about what they can deliver, so they may use the time to lay the foundation for further work down the road, rather than deliver a final project. Or, what they worked on could crash and burn entirely, and they can use the presentation to discuss their inspiration, their approach, and what happened so the team can learn from it.
This freedom to fail is critical to the creative process. You have to create a safe environment in your innovative space, otherwise your employees will never take the risks that ultimately drive some of the biggest advances.
We make time for the things we value. If you want your employees to be more innovative, don’t just say it at the all staff meeting. Building a culture of innovation takes work. Dedicate the effort and resources to creating an environment and a structure that supports the creative efforts of your employees, and then give them the freedom to explore the ideas that will drive your organization forward.
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