Like most businesses, 37signals has more ideas than it has time to develop them. Even at a workplace as unstructured as ours, the usual concerns simply make it impossible to follow through on every promising notion.
What if it didn't have to be that way? What if everyone was given a stretch of free time to work on whatever he or she wanted? What kinds of ideas would bubble up?
In June, we decided to find out. For the entire month, we set aside all nonessential product work (everything besides customer service and keeping our servers running) and allowed people to work on whatever they wanted--new product ideas, features, business models, whatever. At the end of the month, people would present their ideas. The better the pitch, the more likely it would get developed.
Most people spent the first few days of June acclimating to the reality that they were on their own. But soon, ideas began to emerge. Teams started to coalesce, while others opted to work solo. In some cases, a notion would be explored, then shelved for something better. In fact, it was nice to be able to stop one thing and pick up another without feeling as if you were letting someone down.
Pitch Day was July 11. We ended up hearing 29 presentations. David, my business partner, and I went first. We got up at the front of the company (most of which was following along remotely, using WebEx) and pitched a new business model for one of our top products. Because we were first, I don't think people were sure how to respond. There were a few questions but not much probing. As the day went on, however, people loosened up, and each presentation sparked deeper, more interesting questions.
Mig, a designer, and Jeff, a programmer, went next. They pitched a set of internal tools to help our customer service team manage customer accounts. This, as it happens, is something we really need. Our current set of internal tools is pretty long in the tooth. And because customers never see them, it's easy for them to be neglected. We all wanted these new tools the moment we saw them.
Ryan, a designer and product manager, presented a data-visualization technique that we can use to better understand how customers use our products. It was a better way of looking at data we already had, but had traditionally had a hard time understanding. Other pitches included a new way to sell one of our products, a better way to keep our customers informed of the status of our systems, a fresh take on surprising customers with better service, and a better way to introduce new employees to the rest of the company. I was blown away by the creativity, polish, and execution.
Of course, now comes the hard part--deciding what to do. We set up Basecamp projects for most of the ideas and invited the whole company to chime in. Meantime, David, Ryan, and I will be meeting with each individual or team to determine which projects to develop first.
Some people will be disappointed that their pitches won't be implemented, but we hope that will spur them to present even more compelling pitches the next time we do this. Because we will do this again. In fact, we'd like this to be the new way we work. A month "off" for exploration, then pitches, then a few months of implementing the best ideas, then back to the month "off" for freeform exploration, and so on.
How can we afford to put our business on hold for a month to "mess around" with new ideas? How can we afford not to? We would never have had such a burst of creative energy had we stuck to business as usual.
Bottom line: If you can't spare some time to give your employees the chance to wow you, you'll never get the best from them.