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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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When you’re at work, do you have time to develop ideas? How effective is “innovation time”?

In Where Good Ideas Come From, best-selling author Steven Johnson explains how good ideas grow from minor inklings to groundbreaking inventions. He shows how you can use this knowledge to come up with the best ideas possible, and he discusses how to encourage innovation in the workplace.

Read more to learn about workplace innovation time.

Innovation Time

Johnson notes that people who bring ideas to fruition are often able to develop them as part of their careers. For example, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, spent his life—starting in childhood—cultivating the idea for this invention. Part of the reason he was able to develop it fully is that the Swiss lab he worked for, CERN, allowed him to use work time to develop it. With this in mind, Johnson discusses how to encourage innovation in the workplace. Designating “innovation time” is one way to do it.

(Shortform note: Berners-Lee recognizes the importance of having the time, resources, and previous knowledge available to create his groundbreaking innovation, and today he works with the World Wide Web Foundation to help provide others with these resources by making access to the web a basic right. This idea of open access to information was the foundation of his invention and continues to guide his work.)

To encourage this type of innovation, companies like Google deliberately set aside certain percentages of their employees’ work time (20%, specifically) for them to pursue ideas that interest them outside of their specific roles at the company. While most of the ideas developed during this time are never used by the companies, they often lead to highly profitable innovations. In Google’s case, their tools AdSense and Gmail both came from ideas developed during this designated time. And, the company’s vice president of Search Products and User Experience has said that ideas created during this designated time account for more than half of the company’s new products.

What Really Gets Done During “Innovation Time”?

Some Google employees have suggested that the 20% time practice actually leads them to perform 120% of their normal work because they’re still expected to accomplish their full workload in the time they’re not spending on innovative ideas. Critics have also suggested the company may no longer be using the practice (though the company says it is) since, as of 2020, there hadn’t been any notable new products developed since 2014.

Still, experts recommend “innovation time” as an effective innovation strategy. Businesses would have to be willing to accept a potential reduction in overall productivity, but since research suggests that the average worker is only productive for about three hours per day anyway, they might find that the same amount of work is still getting done and employees are using time to innovate that they would have otherwise spent browsing the internet or on social media.
Innovation Time: Encouraging Innovation in the Workplace

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Where Good Ideas Come From summary:

  • How the world's best inventions grow from minor inklings
  • How capitalism negatively impacts innovation
  • Why making mistakes is essential to great innovations

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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