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Google’s 20% rule

Google’s famous 20% rule, is described on their Google Jobs page like this:

We offer our engineers “20-percent time” so that they’re free to work on what they’re really passionate about

I have always wondered how much value they got out of this in practice and so was amused to read Jason Calacanis’s take on it in his 120% solution email yesterday (sufficiently amused to post it on my Tumblog):

When I first learned of Google’s 20% time, hours reserved for engineers to pursue technology projects they find personally rewarding, I thought to myself: “Gosh, that’s brilliantly self-indulgent.” Google’s 20% time has served as a way for the company to recruit and inspire some of the greatest minds in our industry.

It has served them well. Who wouldn’t want to work for a company that essentially says “do what ever you want every Friday!” However, using 20% of your resources to pursue random projects is highly inefficient. While it it might work well for a company like Google, with absurd margins and free cash flow, it’s a fairly crazy strategy for any normal company–or country–to employ.*

I share this view, and combine it with a feeling that the whole idea of the 20% rule as being a key pillar of Google’s innovative culture was a dangerous idea for other people to pick up on, and for employees of other companies to dream about.  At just about every company I know implementing this would make things worse not better.

And now it turns out Google is no different.  Times are tough there now, the share price is down over 50% in the last six months and according to Silicon Alley Insider they are making cost cuts, and, you guessed it, the 20% rule is starting to take a backseat.  From the same Sillicon Alley Insider post:

Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s not even pretending its real [the 20% rule] anymore. Here’s the money quote from the Wall Street Journal‘s rehash of Google’s cost cutting campaign:

“We have to behave as though we don’t know” what’s going to happen, says Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt. The company will curtail the “dark matter,” he says, projects that “haven’t really caught on” and “aren’t really that exciting.” He says the company is “not going to give” an engineer 20 people to work with on certain experimental projects anymore. “When the cycle comes back,” he says, “we will be able to fund his brilliant vision.”

Hype about things like the 20% rule can be dangerous when other companies start to copy them, or individuals start to demand they be given similar freedoms.  I’m glad to see that the power of this idea is on the wane.  Innovation is of course critical to most of the startups we work with, and it needs investment, but for me that needs to be more carefully nurtured and managed than implied by a simple 20% rule.

*Note that Jason was quick to caveat that he doesn’t in any way blame Google for the current crisis.

  • http://www.twitter.com/lakey Chris Lake

    Hi Nic,

    Inefficiency isn’t something we capitalists like but it is sometimes a sign of prudence. Had the banks built in a 20% buffer zone, or ignored the top 20% most risky deals, then presumably we wouldn’t be in this mess.

    As for Google, it is surely a worrying sign that one of the leading lights of tech decides to scale back on innovation, which is what this is. I always admired the 20% rule for the brightest engineers, and thought it was a very cunning move by Google (on IP and HR grounds).

    Cheers,

    c.

  • http://www.twitter.com/lakey Chris Lake

    Hi Nic,

    Inefficiency isn’t something we capitalists like but it is sometimes a sign of prudence. Had the banks built in a 20% buffer zone, or ignored the top 20% most risky deals, then presumably we wouldn’t be in this mess.

    As for Google, it is surely a worrying sign that one of the leading lights of tech decides to scale back on innovation, which is what this is. I always admired the 20% rule for the brightest engineers, and thought it was a very cunning move by Google (on IP and HR grounds).

    Cheers,

    c.

  • http://www.conversationware.co.uk/blog matt lambert

    On the basis that approximately 20% of what anyone does is responsible for 80% of their productivity, all that remains is to work out which 20% that is.

    Let’s hope they’re not cutting back on the wrong 20%.

  • http://www.conversationware.co.uk/blog matt lambert

    On the basis that approximately 20% of what anyone does is responsible for 80% of their productivity, all that remains is to work out which 20% that is.

    Let’s hope they’re not cutting back on the wrong 20%.

  • Sean Owen

    I am not sure the quote you cite makes the case that 20% time is being cancelled or discouraged, but I think this is because many people outside Google don’t get what 20% time is.

    It is, really, hardly a big deal. It’s not a policy or program in any formal sense as much as a statement of culture — it’s OK to spend an afternoon reading a research paper that just might be relevant, or help out another project for a day, or play with some computing resources once in a while.

    It’s also a misconception that 20% time is always spent working on some new, speculative project. Frequently, it is used to work on an existing project, as a sort of internal ‘internship’ preceding possible transfer.

    Finally, 20% time can’t be cancelled because, honestly, every company on earth has 20% — or more — time. You simply can’t monitor and force people to focus every hour of every day in the office. Google folk actually work harder and longer than other companies I’ve seen on their main work. So, the only brilliance here at Google is one of spin — admit people are going to tinker and do what they like to an extent at the office, embrace it, channel it, trumpet it to the world.

    The quote, in the end, makes your point though — Eric is suggesting that speculative *real* projects won’t be given resources and headcount, which is not the same as saying 20% time is out the door.

    Is it a bad sign? no more innovation? hardly, I really think that’s a stretch. Believe me, Google has so much going on that it is a good thing that some silliness is going to get cut — will leave room for the legitimately powerful new stuff to thrive.

  • Sean Owen

    I am not sure the quote you cite makes the case that 20% time is being cancelled or discouraged, but I think this is because many people outside Google don’t get what 20% time is.

    It is, really, hardly a big deal. It’s not a policy or program in any formal sense as much as a statement of culture — it’s OK to spend an afternoon reading a research paper that just might be relevant, or help out another project for a day, or play with some computing resources once in a while.

    It’s also a misconception that 20% time is always spent working on some new, speculative project. Frequently, it is used to work on an existing project, as a sort of internal ‘internship’ preceding possible transfer.

    Finally, 20% time can’t be cancelled because, honestly, every company on earth has 20% — or more — time. You simply can’t monitor and force people to focus every hour of every day in the office. Google folk actually work harder and longer than other companies I’ve seen on their main work. So, the only brilliance here at Google is one of spin — admit people are going to tinker and do what they like to an extent at the office, embrace it, channel it, trumpet it to the world.

    The quote, in the end, makes your point though — Eric is suggesting that speculative *real* projects won’t be given resources and headcount, which is not the same as saying 20% time is out the door.

    Is it a bad sign? no more innovation? hardly, I really think that’s a stretch. Believe me, Google has so much going on that it is a good thing that some silliness is going to get cut — will leave room for the legitimately powerful new stuff to thrive.

  • nic

    Thanks for the comments people. It seems the 20% rule is pretty popular!

    Sean – I agree that the quote I cite only obliquely implies that 20% time is being discouraged – but it does do that much. I’m also with you in that people tinker and it is much better to harness that than be arrogant enough to believe you can stop it.

    For me though harnessing means channeling – which means top down decisions about the areas in which tinkering will be encouraged, and discouragement of activities which go too much off piste. If strategy isn’t set at the centre you don’t get enough focus and the result is too many initiatives that don’t fly consuming significant resource. This is something we have seen at Google, and the post I link to above lists a number of high profile initiatives that have been cancelled in favour of focus on Google’s core strategies.

  • nic

    Thanks for the comments people. It seems the 20% rule is pretty popular!

    Sean – I agree that the quote I cite only obliquely implies that 20% time is being discouraged – but it does do that much. I’m also with you in that people tinker and it is much better to harness that than be arrogant enough to believe you can stop it.

    For me though harnessing means channeling – which means top down decisions about the areas in which tinkering will be encouraged, and discouragement of activities which go too much off piste. If strategy isn’t set at the centre you don’t get enough focus and the result is too many initiatives that don’t fly consuming significant resource. This is something we have seen at Google, and the post I link to above lists a number of high profile initiatives that have been cancelled in favour of focus on Google’s core strategies.

  • http://t-machine.org adam

    In my experience, an awful lot is said about the 20% time concept by people who’ve never bothered to find themselves a Google engineer and sit down with them and ask how the programme actually works.

    From what I’ve heard from the few I know, it sounds like it has always been a lot more practical and intelligent and sensible than common perception would pretend that it is.

    Frankly, I’ve generally not bothered to correct anyone who didn’t bother to research it themselves – except in the cases where they were in my own organization, and attempting to make decisions about related matters based on misconceptions of the supposed Google rule.

  • http://t-machine.org adam

    In my experience, an awful lot is said about the 20% time concept by people who’ve never bothered to find themselves a Google engineer and sit down with them and ask how the programme actually works.

    From what I’ve heard from the few I know, it sounds like it has always been a lot more practical and intelligent and sensible than common perception would pretend that it is.

    Frankly, I’ve generally not bothered to correct anyone who didn’t bother to research it themselves – except in the cases where they were in my own organization, and attempting to make decisions about related matters based on misconceptions of the supposed Google rule.

  • Pingback: T=Machine » Google cutting 20% time()

  • nic

    Adam – I just tried to leave this comment on your T-Machine blog, but got a server error, so I’m leaving it here instead. Hopefully you will pick it up. Best, Nic

    Hi Adam – tks for the comment on TheEquityKicker and sorry if I’ve hit a nerve here. My primary beef with the 20% rule is that it is held out to the rest of the world to be something that I suspect it isn’t. Your comment made me reflect on what I had heard directly from people at Google, and what I had picked up from elsewhere, and whilst I have had some direct input you are right in your assertion that most of it comes from other ‘observers’.

    I say this to you though – please put us out of our misery of misconception and explain how it does work.

    best,
    Nic

  • nic

    Adam – I just tried to leave this comment on your T-Machine blog, but got a server error, so I’m leaving it here instead. Hopefully you will pick it up. Best, Nic

    Hi Adam – tks for the comment on TheEquityKicker and sorry if I’ve hit a nerve here. My primary beef with the 20% rule is that it is held out to the rest of the world to be something that I suspect it isn’t. Your comment made me reflect on what I had heard directly from people at Google, and what I had picked up from elsewhere, and whilst I have had some direct input you are right in your assertion that most of it comes from other ‘observers’.

    I say this to you though – please put us out of our misery of misconception and explain how it does work.

    best,
    Nic

  • http://www.simplelifedivers.com/scubainternshipsthailand/ Diver

    Any entrepreneur or leaders rapidly evolving businesses need to devote a significant percentage of time to thinking, and deciding which direction they want to head in. Otherwise things become static.
    Google’s 20% rule is a good means of driving a thinking ethic down through the entire company, and I’m sure is yielding excellent results for Google.
    Plus it’s a great way of determining which of your staff is an independent thinker and able to come up with successful ideas, essentially pointing out future management candidates.
    This idea isn’t unique to Google – I’ve heard of other large companies running similar programs. For example 3M allow employees to spend a percentage of their time experimenting in the development of new ideas and products.
    Plus there is the flip side. How many bored employees in large companies spend endless hours trying to look busy but achieving very little. At least this way the situation is open, and you give people the opportunity to openly pursue their passions and ideas.
    Perhaps smaller companies shouldn’t indulge on such a large scale as 20%, but I’m sure pretty much every company can invest a couple of hours of their employees time in the future.