Before pressing on with the fact it’s no gimmick let’s step back a minute to what this is. Google and others have notable had 1 day per week (their 20% time) set aside for every engineer or member of staff to work on a completely different project. Some companies have 10%, some put aside 2 days each quarter. Bottom line is that a vast number of companies provide the opportunity for their developers to play with new ideas. This may be related to the work they do – it may be stipulated that it should have business value. It may be a completely free time to explore whatever interests each individual.
How can they afford the loss in productivity?
Seriously? You’re suggesting that people who get a chance to play around with random ideas and innovate without boundaries will somehow be less productive? Not only do most of these companies believe that staff will be more productive at work knowing that they can work on their own interests as well but it’s also a great source of ideas for the product, company or team development.
New technologies can be experimented with, or more product features developed to “proof of concept” stage. You could find that some want to improve the decor in the office or have a desire to explore automation of your processes or tedious tasks. These all sound like wins to me – not just for your product but for the office and company too!
It’s about balance surely?
Maybe. You clearly have a product to deliver and there may be specific expectations or milestones to reach. However consider a shiny new future when your products are developed and directed based on the motivations or interested of your team. Valve does just that – new staff are invited to work on whatever they want! If it’s possible to see business value in what’s being developed then why restrict folk to the work that has been predetermined?
A lot of this builds upon the cross functional team concept where a small team could have complete autonomy to deliver the future of their area of the overall product. Does this fly in the face of planning and delivery? I don’t think so – provided your teams are accountable for delivering value what more could you ask for?