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What Can We Learn from Google's "Mistake?"

Tanya Gupta's picture

Google’s every action is studied under a microscope.  However, one major “mistake” that Google made may have gotten lost.  Google’s policy of freeing up 20% time for all engineers, no management approval needed, was cancelled.  Yes, this is the same policy that was responsible for Gmail.  Google’s former policy had been held up as best practice at Google and in the tech community, and was advertised as a Googler perk.  Although the 20% rule had been used at 3M and HP before, Google made it their own and resulted in industry changing products. 

You may ask - why was the 20% rule such a good idea and why is removing it a mistake? The reason Google’s 20% time off is a great idea is because it worked and worked well. One needs a certain amount of freedom to be creative.  A study on mechanisms of grant funding (long term vs. short term) found that freedom encourages creativity when the freedom was believed to be long term.  “If you want people to branch out in new directions, then it’s important to provide for their long-term horizons, to give them time to experiment and potentially fail.  The researcher has to believe that short-term failure will not be punished” ” says Pierre Azoulay, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and an author of an MIT study on the subject. Freedom of thought inspires creativity and the development community, more than anyone else needs to break away from traditional thinking.

So how can we, in development use the 20% rule in our organizations?  Do we have the courage to implement a great idea now abandoned by Google and use it to help us innovate in the development arena? There are many ways to adopt the idea to the development world, but here are the core constructs of one way to implement the 20% idea in development:

  • Development organizations can free up 20% of all staff time so that they can think creatively about solving development problems.  This 20% time would be made available, without any constraints, without any demand on what they should be working on, and, importantly, without management approval.
  • In a hierarchical organization, to surface good ideas from the bottom of the organization to those who can implement the ideas, we need transparency and harnessing the wisdom of those in development.  To do so, we can create a platform for submission and crowdsource support for the best ideas that incorporate improved and innovative ways of tackling poverty and inequality.
  • Ideas can be submitted on the platform and voted on by all, with the idea getting the most votes being funded.
  • Although the platform could in theory source both ideas and votes from the external world as well as from the staff of one or multiple development organizations, let us, for simplicity, assume that it is being implemented in a single development organization and is voted on only by staff of that organization.
  • The idea or solution should directly link to the needs of a country, group of countries (e.g. low income countries or fragile/conflict affected countries) sector (education, health etc.) or region (operations) OR within that organization (internal).  Innovation in operations can be ideas related to the provision of innovative and improved products and services to developing countries/country groups or new sectoral approaches. Internal innovation can relate to changes that improve efficiency and effectiveness through fresh thinking about how we manage skills, capacity, resources, and processes.
  • Within an organization, every single staff can submit an idea as well as vote.
  • Allow staff to team up - ideally they would crowdsource their own teams to build their proposals.  Teams will NOT need to be constrained by countries, regions, sectors, or functions
  • At the end of cycle, the proposer of the winning idea manages the implementation of the idea from start to end, and gets institutional support for the idea, just like Google.

Some may indeed argue that Google is “aging” and this is a sign that it is declining.  They may use the various organizational life cycles models to support their claim.  They may also point to the slowing down of Google’s dynamic capabilities (dynamic capabilities refer to the “capabilities needed to develop new capabilities – that enable businesses to reconfigure their resources in order to adapt to changes in the environment and secure competitive advantage”).  In fact, this article uses Google’s 20% rule as an example of how it has re-invented itself.  Others may argue that this is just a sign that Google has matured as an organization and removing the 20% rule is a natural progression to make for a large organization.  While the ultimate call on whether Google’s decision is a sign of its maturity or the start of its decline, is not an issue here (notice we use quotes around “mistake” in our title) - we leave that for the management gurus. We just want to make the point that intellectual freedom enabled great products at Google and now that the development world is actively looking for creative way to innovate - would development organizations be bold enough to take up where Google left off and adopt a customized version of the 20% rule?

Comments on the benefits of the 20% idea are welcome in the section below.  Also, if anybody has any examples of where the 20% (or 15%) rule has been used before (other than at 3M, HP and Valve), please leave it in the comments below.

Photo Credit: flickr user dannysullivan

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Submitted by Anonymous on

The 20% rule has been around for a long time in the Silicon Valley, either formally or informally. I worked under that rule at Apple during the late '80's and early '90's and it wasn't an unusual idea in other companies.

One thing that one needs to recognize is that creative engineers are rarely working 40 hours / week anyway. That 20% is already on "their" time and, therefore, the impact of this may not be as significant as it might appear at first blush. Engineers that I have known that move from company to company, some allowing more creative time and some less, haven't really been frustrated in their creativity because they still find the time to be creative. It is just a matter of "on-the-clock" or "off." Off-the-clock sometimes results in new innovative companies.

Google's goal in this is understandable. The 20% rule has generated lots of new products. It has also generated an incomprehensible product mix that they are struggling with. They are moving towards a more advanced research center model, which has its own set of positives and negatives.

Not every engineer is a creative genius. Many (most?) do not flourish in an environment where there is not a defined task in front of them--just a blank computer screen. This is especially true when the standards that are being held up for success are high and the bottom 20% are laid off every year (also a Google policy). An advanced research model recognizes that there are people that do well and people that do not. Creativity requires (at least) understanding of the problem set, understanding of the domain that solutions can be found within, and an innovative bent towards mapping between problem and solution. Most engineers really understand only the solution possibilities. On the other hand, advanced research centers often struggle to bring ideas to product. Xerox PARC is a leading example of this.

I think that a formal 20% program within the Bank would be challenging. Typically, in a pirate ship Silcon Valley project you need to be able to get to running code that solves a recognizable real world problem in 2-3 months with 1-3 people. While there are some notable and successful projects using these parameters within the Bank, most of the problems that the Bank encounters are more difficult and require more time, more money, more accountability.

I would argue that within the Bank, it isn't difficult in find examples of informal success however. There are people who either work over or find enough flexibility in their time to get the same creative results.

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