David Morken, CEO of a company called Bandwidth, is a font of fascinating ideas. Last year, I wrote a post about some of David’s more unusual – and effective – approaches to supporting his employees’ health and well-being.
I continue to be interested in David because the radical things he’s doing seem to be working. Bandwidth is on track to grow over 25% this year. When I spoke with David last week, he reiterated the Bandwidth mission – to unlock remarkable value for our customers – and talked about ways they support employees to come up with new products that do just that.
Some of their approaches are pretty standard, especially for tech companies. For instance, they hold hackathons to get groups of people focused on moving important ideas forward, and they’ve built in good structural support for getting new ideas onto the development path.
But then there is the Sprint Sabbatical. Basically, this is an opportunity for any employee to stop doing his or her job for two weeks and still get paid.
During that two weeks, the person is supported to focus 100% on whatever he or she wants to focus on. Everyone makes sure that the normal job doesn’t intrude; the person’s boss, colleagues and direct reports take on his or her responsibilities. And no one gets to say how the person conducts his or her sprint sabbatical: he can lock himself in his apartment and spend the two weeks listening to The Grateful Dead and playing darts. Or book passage on the Orient Express and doodle in a notebook as she stares at the passing scenery. Or work 9 to 5 in his office, coding.
The only constraint: the “sprinter” has to be working on something he or she feels could become a new product or service for Bandwidth. At the end of the sabbatical, the sprinter makes the case for the idea to a group of his or her peers and the senior management team. Regardless of whether Bandwidth decides to pursue the idea, David tells me that these “unveilings”are hugely fun and energetic – that everyone celebrates the person’s efforts and outcomes. And, at least so far, there’s a high percentage of success – 5 of this year’s 7 new products were initially conceived during Sprint Sabbaticals.
I love the “all-in”feeling of this – like many of Bandwidth’s policies, it goes far beyond other companies’ practices, and I can see why it’s so effective. Though lots of companies say they want new ideas from their employees, very few give people the opportunity to do more than superficial exploration. They may try to hold brainstorming sessions or put out “idea”boxes, but nothing that fully calls out and engages people’s creativity. Bandwidth’s Sprint Sabbaticals give employees a chance to get into “flow state,”a mental and emotional state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term, as completely focused motivation; a single-minded immersion in and alignment with the task at hand. World class athletes and artists describe “flow”as the place where their best performances happen. In supporting employees to take two whole weeks to focus completely on their ‘passion project,’ Bandwidth makes it much more likely they’ll be able to get into “flow,”and access their best thinking and deepest creativity.
I suspect that it’s also deeply satisfying and rejuvenating for the employees themselves. As Dan Pink points out in Drive, human beings most want to experience mastery, autonomy and purpose: they want to have the freedom to get better at or accomplish things that are meaningful to them. And when we do experience those things, it’s enormously rewarding for us. It sounds to me like a Sprint Sabbatical is a near-perfect way to experience all three of those things. So: something that creates new and innovative products for the company and provides a deeply satisfying experience for the employee? Sounds like a win-win to me.