To create space for great ideas to blossom, set aside 10% of your work week

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To build a culture that enables your staff to embrace a 21st-century vision for public radio, one of the most important things you can do is block off 10% of your weekly schedule to do “nothing.”

As a station leader, or even a mid-level manager, you can take that 10% time a number of ways: one afternoon a week, two blocks of two hours, or an hour a day four days — whatever. But it’s critical that this time be sacred. It can’t be canceled, scheduled over or blown off. 

The key to making this time work for you is how you define “nothing.” You shouldn’t sit in a corner and stare at a wall. Instead, think of it as time saved for activities that fall outside what you normally do during work hours. The 10% time is left open for you to do what feels right in that moment. And what feels “right” is spending time building trust and relationships, engaging with your staff on their turf, and living the values and principles of your vision for your organization. In other words, the qualities that will help your organization succeed —  a culture of openness where each individual understands their role in the bigger picture.

It will change how your staff looks at you. You are not simply “the boss.” They recognize you as someone who is devoted not just to vision, but to their success. In other words, a true leader. 

At first glance, 10% time may seem silly, but it is much more than a different way of using your time. It changes how you behave and interact with your staff. Eventually, the practices you develop will become the new norm for your organization. If this idea strikes you as too vague — block off 10% of your precious time to do some opaque future-oriented things  — I get that. So let me share six very specific ideas of what to do during your 10% time.

Idea #1: Give compliments

Take time to send praise out to your staff. Recognize great work wherever you see it —  on the air, with stakeholders and around the office. 

When I started working at NPR, I made myself a goal of writing two notes each week praising colleagues for their work. Sometimes it would be a program or story I heard on the air; other times it was something that happened behind the scenes. Whenever I saw great, impressive work, I took the time to say so. I started by sending private emails, and over time I would say something in group settings or even on social media.

I did that at least twice a week for 11 years.

When I’ve mentioned this practice in the past, friends have said, “Well, don’t people get tired of hearing from you? Don’t they know what you are doing?” In truth: No one ever gets tired of being praised. If it is genuine, they don’t question your motivations, either.

An important pointer on how to recognize achievements: Don’t just say it was great work — explain why it was great. Turn the compliment into a teaching moment for best practices, great work culture, expressions of vision and the moxie you want to see from your staff and colleagues. If it’s true that you are what you measure, then you are equally what you praise.

Idea #2: Take a walk

In an office setting during normal times, how often does a manager or senior leader rush down a hallway, breezing right past countless staffers on their way somewhere? If this is the primary way they see you, that’s a fail.

During your 10% time, walk the halls with no destination or agenda. Greet everyone you see. Stop and talk to people. Ask how they are. Ask what they are working on and if they can show that work with you right then.

In short, let them know you see them.

During my years at Audible, every day around 3 or 4 p.m. was “Peanut Butter and Banana Time.” 

Audible stocked an employee snack pantry, complete with a machine that ground peanuts into fresh peanut butter. The pantry was located on the opposite end of a massive floor full of more than a hundred workplaces and conference rooms. Every afternoon during “Peanut Butter and Banana Time” I would walk there and back to get a snack (you can guess what it was). 

Going in both directions, I greeted everyone I passed. If they didn’t seem too busy, I often stopped to say hello. I made chitchat and asked questions. If they shared their work, I’d be really supportive and encouraging. Sometimes they’d ask for my opinion or ask me a question. Over time, people knew that when they saw me around the office and asked me for something, I would make time for them, listen and follow up on whatever needed to be done. That’s a great reputation for a leader to have. 

Even that simple hello let them know I recognized them. Small, but so, so important. 

Idea #3: Listen

Take time to listen to what your organization makes. By that I do not mean to have it on while you’re doing other things. You need to really listen. Take notes. Ideas will pop up for things that your team can improve on. You’ll also find plenty of praiseworthy items for Idea #1. 

Experience your station and what your team makes without distraction. You can do the same by listening to your organization’s podcasts or by reading through a blog. When I’ve made time for this, I’ve always come up with a thought, observation or idea.

Idea #4: Solve a problem

This is another spin on Idea #2. When you are taking your walk and encounter a problem, fix it. If the headphones are broken in Studio B, be the person who gets them replaced immediately. If the printer isn’t working when you go by, put in the request for service. 

Focusing on fixing these small, everyday problems has two benefits. First, it demonstrates that you care about the small things that affect your employees and that you work to make it easier for them to do their jobs. You can blather on about your support during all-staff meetings, but if no one has bothered to restock reporter notebooks in the supply cabinet for the past four months, your statements don’t carry the credibility with staff that you think they do. 

Second, if you have a reputation for solving small problems, then your team will trust you more to fix the bigger problems your station faces.

Idea #5: Sit in an open place and just be accessible

During the previously mentioned “Peanut Butter and Banana Time,” I would sit in the employee cafe and eat said peanut butter and banana. I kept my face out of a device and made sure I was approachable. On most days, I did the same thing for lunch. 

Just sit at a place with open seats and no device, and be present. Or join a table with more than one open seat. Your staff will come over. Some will ask you quick things; some may sit down and join you. Even if it is for a short time, just make time and space to hang out.

Idea #6: Create space for boredom

I’m a big believer in boredom and welcome the times I can experience it. My 11-year-old son has learned to never say “I’m bored” around me, because he is so tired of what I say. I often clap my hands enthusiastically and say, “That’s terrific! You have your best ideas when you are bored.”

This is really true. When you create space for your brain to spin down and not have an agenda, great ideas start to pop up.

I remember back in 2014 when Jarl Mohn, then NPR’s CEO, expressed interest in creating a coordinated promo campaign for the newsmagazines. No one really had a plan for how to make that work. 

Serendipitously at the same time, a two-day strategic planning retreat for NPR’s executive team  had to be canceled at the last minute. I came into work the next morning with a completely open schedule. No one expected anything from me for a few days. 

I started staring at the dry-erase board in my office and doodled some notes about Jarl’s idea for a promo campaign. I called a few folks into my office later that day. We sat together and brainstormed and worked through a ton of logistics. At the end of the day, we emerged with a detailed plan for the Spark Project. We had the project in front of Jarl the next day.

People often have asked what “spark” means, thinking that, since this is public media, it had to be an acronym. It wasn’t. We chose that name as a working title because we often used the word “spark” to describe really well-produced stories. One of the tenets of the project was that the promos we created had to raise the bar on “generic” promos. Like “stories that had ‘spark,’” the promos had to ignite synapses, too. The name stuck.

It is fair to say that if that executive retreat hadn’t been canceled, the Spark Project may never have happened. The open, unstructured time, with a little added boredom, created the space for us to work through a big question.

A pandemic workaround

These ideas are examples of what I did with 10% time in two different media organizations, but admittedly, they’re from pre-pandemic times when I worked in the same building with lots of other staff. Unless and until you and your employees are back in the same workspace, you’ll need to come up with your own ways to use 10% time, which I encourage you to do anyways.

Think about the culture of your workplace and your vision for the organization. Then come up with ways to spend your 10% time that will help everyone achieve that — by building relationships and trust, as well as by demonstrating your commitment to helping people do their best work.  

Until you can meet in person, a work-from-home equivalent would be to host an open Zoom room where staff can come and just “hang out.” Send a note or text to an employee to ask how they are doing. An invitation to jump on a Zoom call to share their work and catch up can be as gratifying to them as talking face-to-face.

I started off acknowledging the premise of the column might come off as silly. To guide your station to a future full of big ideas, I’m now telling you to put a bunch of holds on your calendar. It’s counterintuitive to how a lot of people think about managing their time.

But consider it from your staff’s perspective. When you blow past them in the hallway without even making eye contact — or when your schedule doesn’t include time for friendly check-ins on Zoom or Slack —  you project that whatever meeting you are rushing to is important and they aren’t.

You are the leader, but you can’t create your organization’s future alone. You need the input and ideas of the people who work for you. The organizations that thrive will be those where everyone is in step together, united around a clear, compelling and aspirational vision. To achieve that, it’s not up to the staff to “get” whatever that vision is. It is up to you to define it, sell it, live it and project it in everything you do. Everything. Every day.

Even the most curmudgeonly employee at your station values your time and attention, and, more importantly, your ear. I can say with certainty that the next “big idea” your station comes up with will arise from the conversations you have and the relationships you nurture during 10% time. That is how important it is. 

You and your team need each other, and the small gestures you take in your 10% time are how you show it. When you look back, you’ll realize that this is the most important thing you did as a leader.

So your task, right now, is to go to your calendar and block off 10% time for the next month. Worry about what to do later. Right now, just get it on your calendar. And make it clear to anyone who has access to your calendar that this cannot be changed, moved or double-scheduled. 

And good luck. I’ll be listening.

Eric Nuzum ([email protected]) is the co-founder of Magnificent Noise, a podcast production and consulting company. He also provides strategic advice to public radio programs and stations and writes about radio and digital audio in his newsletter The Audio Insurgent. His latest book, Make Noise: A Creator’s Guide to Podcasting and Great Audio Storytelling, was published in December 2019.

One thought on “To create space for great ideas to blossom, set aside 10% of your work week

  1. You’ve alluded to this in how the 10% must be “sacred” but it’s important to emphasize that. Google was famous for all-but-requiring employees spend 10% of the work-week on projects outside of their normally-assigned tasks. It took over a decade for the truth to come out: not only were employees *really* expected to spend about 150% (of a 40 hour work week) on their assigned tasks, they were *also* expected to slap on another 10% on the side projects; and they weren’t optional. In other words, what sounded like a structure for creativity to the outside world was really another tool to squeeze ever more blood from the stone and increase worker misery.

    Honestly I think in the current work culture in America, being ridiculously obsessed with uber-productivity and how working more = better in everyone’s mind, you can’t just slap together a “take 10% off” idea onto your office. I’m sure there’s exceptions, but I think a lot of places need to increase their labor pool (or decrease their labor pool’s workload) by about 20% before they can seriously consider allowing their employees to “do nothing” for 10% of their work week.

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