Managers Should Welcome Side Projects

I worked with a client one time who didn’t like when their employees had side projects. “If they have free time, they should be spending it on our project! That’s why they are salary!”

There are so many things wrong with that statement. But let’s just focus on one area. I disagree with this idea that side projects take away from the company’s objectives. Let’s talk about some of the objections.

A Side Project Will Steal My Employee

This is pretty false. First, if you’re engaging your team properly, they’ll spend their time with you effectively. Then, on their own, they’ll work on their passion or side project. If you’re worried that the side project is eating into their work time, there are two things to consider. First, have you actually talked to them about this event? Is it actually happening or are you just afraid it will? Second, consider this a wake-up call that you’ve not properly engaged the employee in their work.

Another concern is that the side project will help the employee leave the company. Let’s face facts: businesses are hard to start and run. It’s not going to be easy for the employee to just pick up and leave. Most technical side projects are passion, not business sensible. But either way, if its going to happen, you should focus on making a partner, not an enemy, of the new venture.

A Side Project Steals My Employee’s Innovation

This is also untrue. Innovation is sparked through your business requirements. Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In fact, without measurements that come from the business, I’d suggest that innovation can actually be a distraction and a waste. (More on that some other time.)

The idea that the side project steals the innovation is false. An innovative employee doesn’t just turn it off per project. When they get inspired, they share that. In fact, I’d rather have my employee be innovative (and deal with the resulting mistakes) on a side project than on my gold product. After they’ve proved the best way to do something on the side project, lets integrate it then.

A Side Project Overlaps Their Existing Product/Work

Another concern businesses have is that the side project is a competing offering to the current business. If this is true, there are a couple things to consider.

This could be happening because your business is not in a place to be innovative and fast-paced enough for this employee. Why would they be spending their time building a side project that would fit into your domain? A good look at yourself to determine if you’re stifling creativity is warranted.

If it is a similar or competing project, don’t ignore it or dissuade it. Learn from it. Figure out if they’re doing something that you should be implementing into your own project. Even consider that you might buy this product, project, process or IP in the future. I realize there’s a huge stature of conflict of interests here, so that’s a place for a whole other conversation. My point is look at it as a positive, something you could absorb, instead of something to destroy.

If the project is competing or supporting, but you’re not building it, consider why you’re not building it. You may have more information than the employee does. Perhaps they don’t understand that there is no market for that particular thing (your business analysis has already proved that). In cases like this, it’s ok to let them continue. Let them discover it the hard way - all the while you benefit from them making innovations and bringing them back ‘home.’

Have a Side Project, or Don’t

Everyone has different goals, experiences and priorities. Some employees may never make a side project, and that’s OK. Don’t stop your team from having a side project. But, don’t force it, either.

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