Extra Credit: Time Away From Work to Build Something Awesome

When you put smart people in a room and cut them loose with time, resources and some direction, they generally create amazing things on their own. They don’t require management. They don’t require specifications and designs. Things will happen naturally. This doesn’t work with everyone, but it works with people who are smart, motivated and resourced. And while you can’t run a company this way (eventually, you need someone to organize the broader group to ship something specific), we think it’s fruitful to cut everyone loose once in a while.

Many tech companies, new and not-so-new, recognize this with various programs. Google has 20% time for its employees, granting them freedom to work on projects they think are personally interesting. Some companies have hack-a-thons and “FedEx days,” a 24-hour period of intense innovation. But some folks at Google call it “120% time,” since it’s hard to separate your normal responsibilities from your 20%. And hack-a-thons, while useful in generating cool new ideas, can sometimes be frustratingly short for motivated people who wish they had more time to see things through.

At Inkling, we’ve decided to take this idea and turn it into something much more real. We’re calling it Extra Credit.

From December 10th through December 23rd, people at Inkling (with a few exceptions) are free of their day-to-day responsibilities. Instead, a brainstorm has taken place on a couple of white boards out on the floor, and then ideas have been “pitched” in an internal wiki. People who have proposed ideas need to recruit participants to their teams. And if some ideas don’t get interested collaborators, they die. It’s an internal free market of ideas.

Over the course of 13 days, people will collaborate to bring their ideas to fruition. New software features, content projects that demonstrate the power of Inkling, bug fixes, new performance enhancements and interesting business innovations and marketing projects have all been proposed. It’s a spectrum of ideas from people in a spectrum of roles.

During Extra Credit, people have total freedom freedom: they choose their teammates, they choose what they do, and they choose how and when they do it. In a startup, you often get freedom over a few of these things, but it’s hard to have all of it at once. Some people are even taking it as an opportunity to go way outside their job description to acquire new skills. The idea is based loosely on Dan Pink’s notion of Motivation 2.0 (it’s a good book), and plenty of additional thought we’ve put into the project as a team. As he notes, it works best with smart, creative people. We have a few of those at Inkling!

When you take your entire team off their “jobs” and let them do what they’d like, it’s a pretty darn expensive bet. (Our investors have reminded us of this.) But we think it’ll pay dividends in the form of awesome new ideas and real, implemented things. And if it doesn’t, we’ll tweak it for next time.

We’ll let you know how it goes.