NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Kickstarter projects are more likely to be launched when college students are on breaks, according to a new study called "Slack Time and Innovation" from the National Bureau of Economic Research. New crowdfunding initiatives sharply increase near summer, spring and holiday class vacations, which the authors suggest may explain why both Microsoft and Facebook were founded in January.
The idea that unstructured downtime encourages creativity is not new. Google lets employees devote 20% of their time to projects of their choice, which reportedly led to Gmail. A similar approach at 3M, according to legend, gave us Post-It notes. It’s fairly generally accepted that when you are free from the daily grind, you are better able to innovate.
This study aimed to test that intuitive concept against evidence in a systematic fashion. The authors, a trio of economists including Avi Goldfarb of the University of Toronto, identified innovative Kickstarter projects launched from 2009 to 2014 on the leading crowdfunding platform. Then they compared launch dates to summer, spring, winter, Thanksgiving and “reading week” breaks for 200 top U.S. colleges.
Their findings supported the idea that downtime boosts creativity, because more projects were launched during breaks. Also, breaks at engineering schools -- but not breaks at art schools -- coincided with increases in the number of technical Kickstarter initiatives. That tightened the causal connection by tying fundraisers’ expertise to timing and type of launches. But the researchers didn’t stop there.
“The initial motivation was a simple question: does it actually increase the amount of crowdfunding?” says Goldfarb. “That result jumped out very strongly. Yes, it does. Then we dove back into other studies of slack time and innovation and tried to find out why this might be going on.”
They looked for evidence of the obvious explanation -- students relaxing on break had time to dream up new ideas -- and didn’t find it. Next, they wondered whether downtime let innovators catch up on mundane tasks like preparing projects for posting. That evidence, they found affirmative.
One factor supporting that explanation was that new projects generally appeared during the early part of breaks. Also, projects being launched were disproportionately ones innovators had been working on for 60 days or more. The conclusion is that innovators were using downtime to fine-tune ideas and finish details such as paperwork and looking for funding, rather than actually creating ideas during the breaks.
So can scheduling downtime to handle the boring part of innovation help you to bring your dreams to life? “That’s the core takeaway,” Goldfarb says. “Breaks give you time to do things that you wouldn’t do otherwise, that when time is scarce you might not otherwise make time to do.”
Of course, it’s not that easy. Part of the problem is that 21st-Century employers, teachers and individuals are not programmed to embrace sloth. “A lot of readers will balk at the word slack,” says Rowan Gibson, a consultant and author based in Costa Rica. “We worship at the altar of efficiency. Over the last few decades, organizations have been pulling the reins tighter and tighter. That gives little room for playing around with ideas and possibilities and running experiments.”
A minority of organizations do, however, encourage innovation by giving employees time to dream and tinker, and the results can be impressive. Gibson says W. L. Gore & Associates, maker of Goretex water-resistant fabric, got into the guitar string business after a slack-timing engineer tried coating strings with plastic. Its Elixir brand strings now are market leaders. Whirlpool and Shell also systematically encourage innovation using somewhat different methods, Gibson says. A few companies like Apple manage to be both innovative and efficient.
Gibson suggests businesses are about to stop focusing so much on efficiency and start looking in earnest for more innovation. When that happens, he says, all of us may better appreciate slack time’s essential role in spurring innovation. “Part of it is coming up with the idea in the first place,” he says. “That requires you to have some bandwidth and space.”—Written by Mark Henricks for MainStreet