Are You A “Daydream Believer?”

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On December 4, 2012

There’s a great business story about a CEO giving one of his new employees a tour of the office. As they pass by one cubicle, the new employee can’t help but notice that the employee sitting in the cubicle has her feet up on the desk, her hands behind her head, and is staring off into space instead of focusing on her computer screen. Somewhat shocked, the new employee glances at the CEO, who seems quite content to ignore the situation.

The two continue their walk around the building and—about 10 minutes later—walk past that same cubicle, where they find the employee in the same exact position. The new employee can’t believe they’ve caught this employee daydreaming twice in ten minutes and asks the CEO if he really tolerates this kind of behavior.

The CEO smiles at the eager new employee and replies, “That ‘daydreamer’ came up with two ideas last month that made this company $5 million. I insist on that kind of behavior!”

The best part of this story is that it’s true. It’ may not have unfolded exactly as described above, but there really are companies that not only tolerate, but that actually encourage constructive daydreaming.

Perhaps the most well known proponent of this approach is 3M. For years, engineers at 3M have spent up to 15 percent of work hours on their own projects, playing with ideas that have nothing to do with their job’s mission. The classic success story coming out of this kind of thinking is 3M’s Art Fry coming up with Post-its while trying to develop a bookmark that wouldn’t keep falling out of the hymnals his church choir was using.

That little invention wasn’t really something 3M had on their list of “important developments.” But it’s safe to say that they made a dollar or two from the idea. And they had other “daydream ideas” coming out of their “15 percent” time that paid off handsomely as well. One that was less known is when John Martens, a scientist in their industrial specialties division developed a polymer during his “15 percent” time that led to 3M being able to produce $100 million worth of lenses used in computer monitors each year.

Can you really schedule 15 percent of your time or your employees’ time for constructive daydreaming? Probably not. Forced creativity seldom works. As a leader, however, you need to give employees (and yourself) a little latitude and freedom to dream. We constantly tell people to “think outside the box” but sometimes that means relaxing our grip on how we define the box.

When and where do you do your best creative, constructive daydreaming? How can you encourage this kind of thinking in your company?