Reignite that missing spark with passion projects

The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of seeing a passion project — something you believed in, championed for and poured endless energy into — come to life. My colleague Ren LaForme and I are feeling all those feels this week.

On Monday we launched 40 Better Hours — a project I’ve written about here before and one we’ve been working on since April.

40 Better Hours was a passion project through and through. It resulted from many geeky conversations Ren and I had about workplace culture. After lots of talks and brainstorms and beers, we came up with the idea to offer up a week’s worth of free videos focused on improving workplace culture. That idea ultimately got crowdfunded, and now, months later, the outcome is here.

Because we work in different departments, Ren and I wound up spending — ironically, given the name — many hours outside of the office working on it. But it was worth it because it was our idea, and we believed in it. We were committed to seeing it succeed and were energized by working on it. And, while I’m certainly biased, I think the end result turned out pretty great.

There’s a clear lesson here for leaders: When you trust and empower your employees to work on projects that they’ve personally championed, you can see great results. Google famously did this with 20 percent time. Internal hackathons are another way to invite people to pitch ideas outside of their typical work responsibilities.

I’ve tried this, too. A few years ago, I instituted “brainstorm time,” which my team promptly (and lovingly) renamed “BS time.” I worked with my direct reports to block off two hours a week to focus on a project of their choice. The blocks were spread out among team members throughout the week, so we were always covered. During that time, they were expected to stay off of email and internal messages, and coworkers weren’t allowed to bother them.

While people could indeed just bullshit during those two hours, they instead spent time working on some fantastic projects. Germain Perez built code that allowed us to better solicit audience feedback within stories. Jareen Imam produced some powerful longform storytelling. Rachel Rodriguez developed a social strategy that positioned us for emerging platforms.

Not all newsroom ideas and assignments should be top-down. You might be surprised what your employees come up with when you give them some space. You’ll likely uncover some undiscovered talents. Passion projects are a great way to give employees with different backgrounds and perspectives a bigger voice.

Best of all, your team will love you for trusting in their ideas.

Last but not least, you should block off your own time to focus on bigger projects, too. Doing so will not only allow you to lead by example, but it will also give you the chance to break away from shallow work and do the deep thinking that matters.


P.S. If you haven’t checked out 40 Better Hours yet, get on it! So far we’ve tackled information overload, meetings and email and leading through change. Today, we’re focused on collaboration. And tomorrow’s topic is burnout and mental health.

This year’s ONA Conference was a wonderful whirlwind. I met dozens of smart women and reunited with lots of Leadership Academy alums. Thank you to everyone who came up and said nice things about The Cohort! It was such an incredible confidence boost.

Not surprisingly, I got a lot of questions about the Women’s Leadership Academy. Applications will open in early November, and I’ll share more details in upcoming newsletters. In the meantime, here’s additional information, including 2017 program dates and guest faculty members.

Things worth reading
I am always on the hunt for dresses with pockets. What does a working mom look like? This Dallas Morning News photographer. Let’s cheer once more for the women who fought for representation in Obama’s administration. Know how to identify the biggest offenders of office sexism. And speaking of ONA, two of my favorite conference sessions were “Do We Need a Bechdel Test for News?” (here’s a good explainer) and “Fail Fest 2016” (I especially enjoyed Julie Westfall’s management lessons).

Meet Manoush, Carla and Jennifer
Because of 40 Better Hours, I’m skipping the profile this week. It’ll be back for the next issue. In the meantime, have fun falling in love with Manoush and rooting for the dream team that is Carla and Jennifer.

Word of mouth can’t be beat. Pass this newsletter on to coworkers and friends!

The Cohort is part of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Props to passion project champion Kristen Hare for her newsletter edits and insight.

  • Profile picture for user katiehawk

    Katie Hawkins-Gaar

    Katie Hawkins-Gaar is the organizer of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. She was previously Poynter’s digital innovation faculty member, and taught journalists how to make the most of social media, understand audience engagement, rethink workflows and foster creativity.


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