One Year in SPACE

The 3 lessons learned from building an innovation arm at LaunchPad Lab

The idea of unstructured time at work is not a new one. 3m has been doing it for 60 years. It lead to Post-It Notes and Masking Tape. More recently, Google has made it famous with their 20% time. Gmail and AdSense was born out of this time.

We have used unstructured time at LaunchPad Lab since the company was founded over four years ago. The mandate and strategy was loose when the company was born: “We will work on our ideas.” Two years ago, the strategy evolved: “We will have 20% time and quarterly demo days.” One year ago, we gave this home for internal innovation and idea exploration its own name. SPACE.

A place full of innovation, risk, and inspiration. The great unknown.

The internal branding of this 20% time has evolved because our company has evolved. In the early days, when it was just 3 people working together to build LPL, it was easy to understand how that time was being used. When we added more developers, it was easy to talk about hack-a-thons and see code being written. As we added project managers, designers, and apprentices, we needed to showcase a wider range of skill sets and ideas. By definition, what happens during the 20% time is unclear and will change. But the fact that it exists has always been crystal clear. We just need to continue to communicate it clearly.

Today is SPACE’s first birthday! And just like any 1-year old, it is barely walking and still learning how to survive. More importantly, it is having a lot of fun doing it. When we named our 20% time a year ago, the goal was pretty clear: What do we call a place that inspires our team members to explore and experiment with new ideas and technologies? It was pretty clear back then — and still holds true today — SPACE was a no-brainer.

The original brain dump for my idea of SPACE. It needed to be a place where “Anything could happen.”

What have we learned from running an internal innovation arm for the past year?

There are 3 key lessons we have learned over the past year that will continue to guide us as we grow and improve SPACE. These may change as we learn more, but for now they are providing a backbone for all decision making related to our 20% time:

1. Innovation cannot be forced, but it can be guided

It does not work to have a few people come up with an “ideas board” and then assign those ideas to the rest of team. Just because the work is generated from an internal idea as opposed to a client request is irrelevant to the person it’s being assigned to. If they are not inspired by the problem they are solving, or the way they are solving it, it’s just another item on their to-do list. You cannot force or steer what problems people work on.

That said, you can help move their work along. Creating dedicated time where no client work can happen has been effective. Quarterly Demo Days and weekly Lunch and Learns have worked very well for us. We have tried other things like Friday Afternoon’s in SPACE (hasn’t been that effective), Innovation Workshops (have worked well), and themed Demo Days to flex our creativity muscles. We will continue to learn how to best guide and assist our team members in getting the most out of their 20% time.

2. All ideas need room to breathe

What is an acceptable use of 20% time? In short, the answer has to be anything. It is impossible to prescribe criteria around what can be worked on because technology, relevant problems, and the makeup of our team is changing so rapidly. We want to provide people the opportunity to explore all sorts of problems and interests — building technology businesses, hacking with new languages, writing, teaching, photography. We have bucketed some projects into 3 categories: Satellites (built to last), flybys (fun hacks and experiments), deliveries (gems). But SPACE is not exclusive, anything is allowed to happen. It must be that way or else we run the risk alienating certain team members and ideas.

3. You must believe in the long-term

I was explaining SPACE to a friend of mine who works in a similar industry, and he asked “What do you measure to know if it works?” As a product person, it truly pained me to respond with “We can’t measure it, and we don’t want to measure it.” But the truth is, we have tried to measure it and set goals, and it just doesn’t work.

We have generated new clients from teaching classes and writing blog posts. We have had potential hires talk about projects they saw on the SPACE website. We have had prospective clients mention that they love that we build or own products, and that we can empathize with their business struggles. We have very low employee attrition. We have earned revenue from products developed in SPACE . Does all this mean it is an effective strategy?

Perhaps. But if we believe that, then we must also believe that if none of these things happened, we would consider it a failure. And that’s just not true. The only thing that we have to believe in is our ability to hire great people.

Our team when we first launched into SPACE! We have since added 3 more astronauts.

Steve Jobs famously said “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” We believe that. And SPACE is a manifestation of that belief. We trust that over time great things will happen out of this commitment because we have great people. The entire leadership team believes that, and the entire company believes that.

To infinity, and…

What’s next for SPACE and 20% time as-we-know-it at LaunchPad? As mentioned above, it could be anything. Some of the things we want to experiment with this year are to bring in more outside entrepreneurs and product minds to talk about innovation. We really want our team to experiment with more content creation — specifically writing. And we want to experiment with ways that LaunchPad Lab can help other businesses grow outside of our traditional agency relationship.

Will we be able to tell if these ideas are “successful”? Maybe. Maybe not. And that’s okay. We know it has been said that “that which is measured, improves.” But when it comes to brand-new, highly creative, quirky, fun, and educational experiments we have found that it’s okay to remove measurement, KPIs, and targets and just take a flier. We believe in this commitment. We trust our gut. And we will continue to push onward.

If you like what you read, please recommend this post and share it with others. Also, you can follow me here on Medium or on twitter @paulgonz6.

Also, if you have 20% time at your company, I’d love to hear from you to learn about some of the stuff that has come out of it, and how you structure that time.

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