“Side Project” Culture and Mental Cross Training


The default picture of tech companies is ping pong tables, beanbag chairs, nerdy t-shirts, and brilliant if socially awkward programmers wearing headphones and tapping away at sticker-adorned MacBook Pros. While that image can entertain, beneath the stereotypes there lies an incredibly useful set of cultural principles that individuals and other industries should look to adopt.

I’ll focus on what I’ll call the “side project culture,” a staple at many tech companies. Places like Google and LinkedIn have popularized these practices in recent years, but the theory transcends tech and even business in general. The lessons of side projects can apply to business strategy, professional development, and personal growth equally – there are even analogues in biology and athletics.

The most widely known example of side project culture is Google’s “20 percent time” practice, which (despite its formal deprecation in August 2013) exists in many tech companies, “providing an outlet for the company’s brightest, most restless, and most persistent employees.”

The theory of 20 percent time is that interested employees can spend one-fifth of their time experimenting with the ideas and projects that they personally find most intriguing or energizing. That might mean a pet project or tinkering with something that already exists.

Most importantly, side project culture gives people the freedom to be removed from their day-to-day habits. This allows for cross-pollination of ideas, strategies, and tools that can be taken from one situation or project and applied to another. These tools enable the fundamental building blocks of perspective, versatility, and dynamic innovation.

Just as the best-tasting produce often comes from cross-pollinating strains to create something greater than the sum of its parts (see Honeycrisp and SweeTango apples), the best ideas and the most effective personal growth often stem from the intermingling of seemingly disparate worlds.

If you use Gmail, you have seen the power of this firsthand. Originally developed as a side project over the course of more than two years by engineer Paul Buchheit, Gmail is now central to Google’s product set. Representing a significant deviation from Google’s core historic focus of search, Gmail has reaped the rewards of cross-pollination of ideas.

Side project culture mustn’t exist exclusively within businesses, though. Other parts of everyday life have this, but under different names. Athletes know this phenomenon as cross training; elite runners know they need strong core muscles to be faster. In the realm of personal development, side projects include participating in a book club, traveling, or volunteering.

All of these side projects involve gaining experiences, overcoming unique challenges, and broadening your knowledge base, and you may have started to think of side projects that you have in your own life, whether work-related or otherwise.

Consistently, passion for a particular topic, social group, or activity drives our pursuit of these side projects. Rarely are side projects assigned – we actively seek them out to enrich our experience.

The key lesson from side project culture is not to simply have side projects, but to let them permeate and inform our other activities, so we can take advantage of the perspective they bring by putting our brains in a different space.

These side projects can’t be looked at as “distractions” or “extras” – they are a crucial part of developing truly innovative products and driving meaningful personal growth. In all likelihood, that side project will often make our primary project better, and the side project may actually become the main project. In any case, the message is clear: embrace the side project.

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