Are you giving employees time to play? Often, that’s when breakthrough ideas happen.

It’s something Jim Coudal has mentioned before — how he actually encourages employees to goof around. I asked him to expand on that and here’s what he wrote:

Most of the smart, creative, successful people I know spend a good deal of time looking for inspiration, tracking down ideas and doing research.

We do all those things too, we just don’t have a problem with calling it what it is, “goofing around.”

Play is essential, it’s through play that you find connections between things that might not be at all obvious through logic or practicality.

If you don’t have any accidents how are you ever going to have happy ones?

3M gives all employees 15-20 percent free time to work on their own projects. If it’s a success, the project can be spun off into a new business and the employee who originated it is given an equity share. Most of the inventions that 3M depends upon today came from this free time.

In 1968, 3M employee [Art] Fry was singing in the church choir and got annoyed that his bookmark kept falling out of his hymnal. “It was during the sermon,” Fry remembers, “that I first thought, What I really need is a little bookmark that will stick to the paper but will not tear the paper when I remove it.” Fry wondered whether it would be possible to create a repositionable bookmark that would stick only gently to a page. In the months after his church choir daydreaming, he spent his side-project time researching what would ultimately become the adhesive behind the hugely popular yellow Post-it Note. It was an unexpected, even random, invention that saw the light of day thanks to 3M’s flexible employee policy.

And you’ve probably heard about how Google offers engineers “20-percent time” so they’re free to work on things they’re passionate about. One interesting side effect of that is a more long-term view. People who are given free time often see further down the road since they’re not forced to focus on immediate problems.

IBM also gives lab researchers time to experiment and play. In fact, that’s how IBM invented the application of laser for eye surgery. A group of IBM scientists were experimenting with laser for improving IBM products. One scientist wanted to see what the effect of laser would be on a cut on his finger. Intrigued by the results, the scientists experimented on cows’ eyes and eventually human eyes. IBM eventually licensed out the technology, making millions in profit.

If you want breakthroughs, then give people some freedom.