“Everyone has a side-gig these days, I have a side gig!” Michael Dumlao, Booz Allen’s Director of Brand, exclaimed after his presentation on their re-branding efforts.  I was impressed with his response. I’d been skeptical when Mr. Dumlao described Booz, the grandfather of management consulting firms, as “a 100-year old start-up.”

I’ve been part of enough change initiatives with large organizations to know the difference between “talking” about being more creatively innovative and actually making it happen. Mr. Dumlao’s answer suggested that their brand transformation had indeed crossed the talk/do chasm.

Earlier that week I had been discussing potential opportunities at a well known consulting firm, let’s call it Firm A – only to discover it has a policy not to allow “side-hustles.” Needless to say, I was bummed.

I left my last company; let’s call it Firm B, because a similar policy left me feeling stifled and bored. My old firm had good reasons for its policy, it was risk-averse, and had strict compliance rules, especially relating to their audit work, and it makes sense not to allow employees to “compete” with the firm.

The reason the Firm A gave me for disallowing side gigs was that they expected all their employee’s energy to go to their work. (As a creative consultant I have to say, that logic reflects a lack of understanding and appreciation for the creative process.) For firm A’s policy to make sense, there has to be perfect alignment of interests between the firm and the individual and very probably perfect information exchange, as well as a shared view of risk. While I can imagine this to be possible, I think it unlikely.

These policies mitigate both value & risk

I remember reading once that in Silicon Valley, investors should look at what programmers work on in their spare time. Looking at these passion projects makes sense. Whenever I was assessing pilots and proof of concept pitches for the data innovation group, I found that the enthusiasm of the data scientists and programmers was a significant indicator of a project’s success, exceeding even the impact of senior leadership’s enthusiasm, and far exceeding expected financial gains. IMO, passion projects are incredibly efficient in terms of time management because folks access flow – an optimized often generative energy state. Also,

People learn by doing

Restricting side projects to a “hobby” – i.e. you can’t test out market viability, means that your best people can’t test and calibrate their impact. Such policies are disempowering and kill entrepreneurial drive. This is a problem if you want to retain “impactors” – a term I lifted from Jenny Blake’s book NYT best-selling book, “Pivot.”

Off the top of my head some benefits for allowing employees to engage in side-gigs

  • Potential cross-pollination of ideas – across industries
  • Empowering under-represented groups to understand their impact
  • Helps employees mitigate financial risk
  • Encourages employees to think like an owner
  • Mitigate “boredom” and develops new skills
  • Encourages external networking
  • Allows impactors to “test” out ideas without the constraint of firm oversight or approval

Lastly, and most obviously, side gigs are rapidly becoming the new norm. According to Upwork, it’s estimated that 50% of millennials are engaged in the gig economy and that number is only expected to grow. I suspect that the most prestigious firms will find that side-gig restrictions will hurt their ability to attract and retain top talent.

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