How Side Projects Benefit Companies

How Side Projects Benefit Companies

Telling Leonardo da Vinci to stick to painting and forget about his inventions, or advising Steve Jobs that tinkering with electronics in his garage was a distraction, is ridiculous, right?

There’s a myth in the corporate world that employees with side projects are less focused, less productive, or disloyal. But let’s debunk that.

When employees bring their whole selves to work—including their passions and side projects—they’re not just more engaged. They become a powerhouse of innovation, creativity, and problem-solving skills that can propel the company forward in unexpected ways.

Encouraging your team to embrace side projects isn’t just good for them; it’s a good for the company too.

Advocating for side projects

The Innovation Playground

Innovation thrives on experimentation and risk-taking, where the fear of failure is overshadowed by the thrill of discovery. Side projects offer a space where failure is not just accepted but expected. It’s here that employees can experiment with new technologies, methodologies, or ideas that they might hesitate to bring up in their day jobs.

Consider the story of Gmail, born from a Google engineer’s side project. It revolutionized email with its unparalleled search function and more storage space than its contemporaries. Or take Slack, which began as a gaming company’s internal communication tool before becoming the backbone of corporate communication worldwide.

Autonomy fosters a culture where creativity thrives. When employees feel empowered to explore their interests and pursue side projects, they bring back new ideas and skills to their primary roles, enriching the team’s work and sparking discussions that might not have occurred in a traditional setting.

The Polymath Potential

Polymaths have a secret: they see connections where others see walls. They draw from multiple disciplines to solve complex problems. Encouraging employees to pursue side projects taps into their polymathic potential.

A finance professional who moonlights as a fiction writer uses storytelling skills to transform dry reports into compelling narratives that captivate and persuade, making data and trends accessible to all departments.

Steve Jobs believed in blending technology with the humanities and credited Apple’s success to employees bringing their personal passions into their work. Jobs himself studied calligraphy in college, which influenced the Macintosh computer’s typography and user interface. This is a prime example of how personal pursuits can impact a company’s innovation.

The Personal Brand Impact

The line between personal and professional branding is blurred, creating opportunities for companies to leverage the strengths and passions of their employees. Personal branding isn’t just self-promotion; it’s a platform for expressing expertise, interests, and insights. When these pursuits align with the company’s mission, the relationship can amplify brand awareness beyond traditional marketing channels.

Julie Zhuo, former VP of Product Design at Facebook, is a standout example. Her articles and book on design and leadership have established her as a leading voice in the tech community. While rooted in her personal experiences and expertise, her content also portrays Facebook in a positive light, showcasing it as a place that values thoughtful leadership and design excellence.

What should companies do?

Clarify Boundaries: Define the types of encouraged side projects and their alignment with company policies to prevent conflicts of interest and build trust.

Offer support by providing access to company tools or software for personal projects. Google’s “20% time” sparked innovations like AdSense and Gmail.

Create Sharing Platforms: Host regular sessions where employees present their side projects. This celebrates their passions and can inspire collaboration and new ideas within the company.

Highlight Achievements: Acknowledge employees’ side project achievements in company newsletters or on social media.

Offer Learning Stipends: Provide stipends or reimbursements for courses and workshops that employees want to take, even if they’re outside their expertise.

Embracing Side Projects: A Win-Win

Side projects showcase employees’ talents, drive innovation, and reflect a company culture that values growth, learning, and exploration.

They foster innovation, encourage cross-pollination of skills, and enhance personal and company branding. They remind us that thriving companies are driven by individuals’ passions, creativity, and willingness to explore.

Imagine a future where companies integrate side projects into their DNA—a future where the question isn’t if employees should pursue side projects, but how to leverage them for mutual benefit. This vision isn’t far-fetched. I hope it’s not.

You've reached the end. This is where I ask...

you to join my newsletter. Every week, I'll send you links to interesting things I learn, book, app & video recommendations along with something to make you laugh. Want to join?