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I am attempting to get a proposal going where some time is set aside for innovation, similar to the well known free time at Google, but I fear that one of the biggest argument will be that it will encroach onto project time.

So if your are PM on those projects, how would you manage or balance the team's time on the project vs the innovation time, especially on projects that have hard deadlines?

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All sorts of innovation programs are always a trade-off. From a project perspective you usually lose more than you get, e.g. you can allocate only 4/5 of people time, which is measurable difference, and what you get instead is people who are a bit more motivated and happy. The gain of innovation programs is on company level: you get a chance to come up with some breakthrough, you raise motivation of people across the company and you draw better candidates to join the organization.

If you're PM and there's such program in place, just plan for it. If people are free to use 20% of their time on whatever they want, plan that they'll have one weekday off as they'll be busy with their side projects. I assume here the organization which introduces such plan is ready to take it with all its consequences.

If the program is introduced in the middle of the project you can ask the team to finish their work as planned and only then join innovation initiatives. It won't be the best idea if the project is going to last like two years from now though.

Anyway you can't forbid people to do something which is generally approved so if they are allowed to join some innovation initiatives react as you would in any other similar situations, like too low estimates, sickness, leaving etc. It doesn't really matter what is the reason of not having a specific person for some time in the project - reaction would be similar:

  • you can try to fill the gap with other, possibly new, team members
  • you can work on scope trying to move some work out
  • you can renegotiate schedule if possible
  • Great response. I believe the key is to plan for it. Fortunately, the typical project lifespan is about 3 years in my industry so there is plenty of scope to schedule in innovation time. Thanks for your comments. – tehnyit Mar 19 '11 at 20:37
  • The lifespan of a project is not scope. Whether it is 3 years or 10, that has nothing to do with scope. I cannot see how "innovation" can possibly be in scope of a non R&D type project. Why would any project sponsor wish to pay a project team to sit around to think of some good ideas when all he needs is his widget built. This makes no sense to me at all. – David Espina Mar 20 '11 at 20:24
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Just like the previous people said: this is not something related with your project or project manager. It's simply about changing the company's policy. Therefore you should not go to your PM with such a proposal but to your department's head or your company's managers.

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Is innovation in scope? Is part or all of the project's solution unknown such that innovation is required? For projects where there is not a research and development component, I opine that innovation is not part of the project at all and should not be planned for nor paid for by the sponsor.

Now, there is always some incremental innovative thinking that goes on in all efforts and this is not what I am talking about. But you are using Google's free time to think about new things and that is not consistent with project work, save for R&D projects.

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