Pros and Cons of Google's 20 percent time concept?
May 14, 2007 9:41 PM   Subscribe

Pros and Cons of Google's 20 percent time concept?

I've been promoting the concept of implementing Google's 20% time policy into our 100-person company.

This policy involves requiring engineers to devote 20% of their resources to their own projects. The only caveat is that the company owns whatever you produce in that time.

I'm trying to pitch this idea to the higher ups, and so far some people are pretty excited. They've tasked me with researching more about the pros, cons, and specific policy implementations so as to make a more compelling pitch.

I've seen some pretty good prior discussion.

The deeper question I have is, "Given Google's success, why haven't more companies instituted this policy? Why hasn't yours?"

It has been widely successful for Google, with more than half of its revenues coming from projects started during the 20% time.

Is it just resistance to change that is stopping this?
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think Google came up with the idea, it's pretty common. In fact, I think it was invented by 3M, and I know that's how the post-it note was invented.

I also don't think that engineers are required to spend 20% of their time on personal projects.
posted by delmoi at 9:53 PM on May 14, 2007

Your caveat is a huge one. I don't know the details of Google's 20% policy, but in your case I don't think it makes sense to offer engineers time to work "on their own projects" and then have the company own whatever they produce. What if it's for projects they've already started? Do they then have to give those projects to your company? And participation in almost any kind of open-source work is incompatible with this proposal. For example, if somebody is a regular maintainer for WordPress, how can your company own that work?
posted by ldenneau at 10:25 PM on May 14, 2007

Not really answering your questing, but I found this quote from Eric Schmidt interesting:

Wired interviewer: How do people actually do 20 percent time? How do people actually figure out a way to actually get 20 percent of their time for that without working on weekends?

Schmidt: They work on weekends.

posted by jaimev at 10:49 PM on May 14, 2007

Here's one potential negative: 20pc is enough time to do something, but not necessarily enough time to do it well. By virtue of it being a Google project, though, it may gain a foothold that similar projects do not.

It might also be noted that 20pc of Google-worker time in the Valley is not necessarily commensurate to 20pc of time in another environment. While Google isn't a sleep-under-the-desk operation like those springing to life ten years ago (is it really that long ago? wow.) it tends to hire people who don't really ever clock off, and creates an workplace that supports arriving early and staying late.
posted by holgate at 10:51 PM on May 14, 2007

Ah, should preview: and that whole interview is interesting as a study in how to make people work as much as possible without them feeling that they're being worked as much as possible.
posted by holgate at 10:53 PM on May 14, 2007

"For example, if somebody is a regular maintainer for WordPress, how can your company own that work?"

Doesn't work that way. As I understand it, this is to encourage development of new projects on company time. It's not to let people work on pre-existing hobbies while still being paid. Though I'd love to be able to get my kitchen done while still on the clock...
posted by jaysus chris at 11:06 PM on May 14, 2007

when i read the words "20 percent concept" i thought it meant they were required to work 20% of the time they're on the clock. have you seen how much volleyball those people play? i wouldnt care how long i was clocked in or how many days of the weekend i worked if i was making a nice salary and getting free meals, daycare, etc. i wouldnt care what projects of mine they owned either. im sure thats a big part of it all..
posted by white light at 11:06 PM on May 14, 2007

Most companies hate spending money on R&D, and hate the idea of employees 'wasting' time on things that aren't immediately productive. Some managers cling to monthly profit figures for dear life.

I'd steer clear of using Google as an example, as it's debatable whether they're at all successful outside of search/AdWords. Instead, try to find ways to encourage R&D and training that best suit your company's culture and explain how it would relate to improved performance.

One other factor to bear in mind is that many (probably most) employees won't have the creativity and drive to pursue innovative side projects properly. They just want to plod through their jobs and take home their wages with the minimum of fuss, and aren't actually very interested in their work.
posted by malevolent at 12:42 AM on May 15, 2007

My company used to have a 20% time thing, but we migrated away from it because it didn't really work for us. We're a very collaborative company, and the 20% time thing was encouraging people to go off and work on their projects on their lonesome, and that basically resulted in a ton of half-assed projects that never really got completed. The projects tended to generate as much stress as normal work, but to less effect, since a single person will simply not do as good a job as two or more people on all but the most trivial projects. So the divisiveness was not positive.

Far better is to have a company culture that rewards coming up with good projects, evangelizing their provenance, and collaborating with an ad-hoc group to get them done. This way, we have all the "take your destiny into your own hands" benefit of 20% time, but with more emphasis on actually following through, which is ultimately what's really satisfying about working on your own projects. Also, there's more freedom since you can spend 100% of your time on your project. It's not some crappy-ass benefit that makes the other 4 days of the week tolerable -- it's a core principle of the way we do development.

There's some company that is really successful that has a similar self-governing strategy, but I can't really find out for sure which one it is. It might be SAIC based on the linked article.

Whole Foods is an example, in a completely different industry, of a team-driven culture that rewards bottom-up innovation without having some arbitrary amount of time set aside for creativity or whatever.
posted by breath at 2:22 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Google has a uniquely over-powered workforce. Your mileage is likely to vary if you don't have the luxury to recruit people who are once intensely ambitious, intensely creative, and very adaptable to hierarchy and benchmarks (as shown by their SATs and Ivy/Stanford/Berkeley credentials).
posted by MattD at 3:31 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Two potential problems with 20% time:

1. Some people will spend the 20% cruising the Internets (Research! Research!).

2. Others will become obsessed with their projects--so obsessed that 20% turns into 60-80% and their "real" jobs never get done.

As jaimev points out, side projects are what weekends are for.
posted by GarageWine at 6:06 AM on May 15, 2007

In what way has the 20% system been successful for Google?

They make all of their revenue from Adwords.

That's true, but to continue the growth curve of Adwords they need more pages viewed, and not just search result pages, on which to serve up Adwords. The projects lab contributes to this, some of it works, some of it doesn't.

As to why more companies don't do this -- few companies have the leeway to do it. That 20% would consume the profit margin in a lot of businesses. And, most companies don't have as open-ended a business model as Google does. "Organize all the world's information" is a pretty broad target. Most company missions are far more targeted, which in turn requires the R&D to be far more focused than Google's.
posted by beagle at 6:30 AM on May 15, 2007

A while back a Google employee answered questions on the Something Awful board. It has some details on their 20% implementation:
Nobody keeps track of 20% time with any care whatsoever. It's assumed that, if a deadline is pressing on your main project, you'll work on that. If your main project constantly has looming deadlines, it's time to talk to your manager or your tech lead and tell them that they're pushing too hard. The Google management respects this complaint, and knows that you can't expect a programmer to push as hard as possible for more than a week at a time.

If you don't have a looming deadline, people don't mind you working on 20% stuff in your spare time. Some people take one day a week, some people take one week a month, some people do it differently. I tend to make small changes to the calculator when they show up (we're talking maybe an hour of work a week, at most), and at some point in the near future I'm going to tell my boss "hey, I need to use a month of my accumulated 20% time to make a bunch of major changes on the calculator, do you need me for now?" and I bet he'll say "no, go for it".
posted by smackfu at 7:03 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

The concept has merit though you might have to make some modifications to the structure of how the work get done. What I do is request quasi business plans from folks wanting to use work time to further their own personal dreams- dreams that I (the company) will own and they would garner a percentage of total sales.

If the plan had any merit we'd pursue it till it either died or took flight- while still performing their required duties. I would do my best to work side by side with them, pointing out concerns and making suggestions but at all times they were steering the ship. Keep in mind dead lines had to be met but they were self assigned.

We never had a single failure. Not a single one. Yes, a few never made a red cent and many others probably cost me a few bucks but I allowed the opportunity. An opportunity most employees never thought they would ever get. The satisfaction of enabling a person always paid me back 40 fold.

In most cases, the opportunity to fail is just as appreciated as the opportunity to succeed.
posted by bkeene12 at 7:12 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think you've got blinders on. Google doesn't have "a 20% time concept" -- it has its entire workplace culture. Being able to spend time on personal projects is part of that, but so is having so many recreational and social facilities on site, and a genius/overacheiver culture that goes with it. Unless you've got all of the things that Google has, just taking the 20% time idea is going to backfire.

(And consider also the possibility that Google has succeeded in spite of, rather than because of, their 20% plan, which has given them the likes of Orkut, Calculator, Froogle, and Google Suggest, hardly big winners. Note that even then, Froogle, Calculator and Suggest are very "on-message", so it comes down to people working on "own projects" that happen to be the sort of things that the company might do anyhow.)

You need to figure out what your workplace culture would benefit from. You might enjoy reading Ricardo Semler's book The Seven Day Weekend, about the extremely unusual working arrangments at his firm Semco -- not because you'd benefit from implementing the same things, but just as inspiration.
posted by mendel at 7:31 AM on May 15, 2007

Keep in mind that people at google routinely work 60-80 hour work weeks. These people are crazy good and crazy committed to their job. In a less intense environment, I'm not sure you'd have the same results.
posted by chrisamiller at 7:56 AM on May 15, 2007

My department (in an academic library) does technology support and development. We became intrigued by the 20% concept, but couldn't decide how to do with without running afoul of meetings and whathaveyou. So, we picked a week, blocked off our calendars, and declared to the larger organization that we were having project time and were otherwise unavailable. We grabbed a few of our own "wouldn't it be nice if..." ideas and some suggestions from the staff, brought in lots of snacks, sat around a table together, and had a go at it.

It yielded several very useful products for the library (a wiki, new books RSS feeds, a way to collect and analyze reference stats, to name a few) and let us exercise our creativity a bit more than normal, and was just an awesome break from the everyday. We plan to repeat it every year.
posted by donnagirl at 9:26 AM on May 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of the 20% philosophy.

I was trying to push this at the last company I worked for, but they didn't want to go for it. My feelings on it are like this:

Companies are afraid of it because they feel as if they'll lose control of employees projects. Bosses like to know exactly what employees are doing and approve of every move. With the 20% time, 1 day out of a 5 day work week could be spent working on something the boss doesn't believe in at all. That's scary for bosses.

Fact of the matter, is, in my opinion, is if I (the engineer) wasn't working on something I really believed in/wanted to do, what would I be doing instead? If you think I'm going to work 100% of the time on a project I'm bored by, you're delusional. I'll make you think I'm spending all my time on that, but more realistically, I'd be spending 20% of that time working on...

a) Nothing. Being bored does nothing for productivity, so I'd probably be reading metafilter, or something else that is doing nothing for the company's bottom line.

b) The project the boss doesn't approve of. Since it's actually mentally stimulating, I'd want to do it anyway, so I'd work on it in secret.

I think that publicly accepting the 20% policy is just admitting what is already a reality, and thereby giving the company more control than it might by expecting the impossible. Again, thinking that an employee is going to put 100% of their effort towards things you want them to is unrealistic. Any savvy engineer knows that the first thing you do at a new job is figure out how little you have to work in order for your boss to think you're putting in 100%. Saying right off the bat that 20% of that time can be spent on whatever project I want to do immediately takes some of the secrecy out of the equation.

Also, speaking from experience, it's really frustrating to have a good idea that fellow engineers believe in, and then have an ignorant boss pull the "not a priority" card, and forbid you to work on it. 20% time gives the people with ideas the power to actually implement them.
posted by jeffxl at 9:29 AM on May 15, 2007

mendel: And consider also the possibility that Google has succeeded in spite of, rather than because of, their 20% plan, which has given them the likes of Orkut, Calculator, Froogle, and Google Suggest, hardly big winners.

It's funny how much I hear Americans claiming that Orkut is not a big success when it's actually the 8th-busiest site on the internet.
posted by atomly at 9:48 AM on May 15, 2007

AdSense was a 20%-time product, and that accounts for roughly half of Google's revenue.
posted by philosophistry at 11:30 AM on May 15, 2007

philosophistry: AdSense was a 20%-time product, and that accounts for roughly half of Google's revenue.

Actually, I believe AdSense was developed by Applied Semantics, which was purchased by Google in April 2003.
posted by atomly at 1:38 PM on May 15, 2007

I've heard that GE did a 20% time type program in the 60s/70s as well.

most companies don't have as open-ended a business model as Google does.

Indeed, if your company doesn't have a very broad scope, it just won't have the resources to capitalize on the projects.

As for all the talk about work on weekends and 80 hour work weeks.. I've never worked in that kind of environment, but I think people are being entirely too literal about it. I expect that a 20% program really just means that the company is committed to taking self-initiated projects seriously, without all the usual gate keepers getting in the way. Whether it really makes up 20% time, or is just a weekend thing, or whatever, must surely depend entirely on the individual employee.
posted by Chuckles at 2:25 PM on May 15, 2007

It's funny how much I hear Americans claiming that Orkut is not a big success when it's actually the 8th-busiest site on the internet.

Well, I didn't say that it wasn't busy. I'm sure lots of people use Google Calculator, too. But Google is an advertising company.

Also, the old "oh, those Americans" thing works better when replying to Americans.
posted by mendel at 11:45 AM on May 16, 2007

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