The Myth Of Google's 20% Time

It is one of the most enduring innovation ideas, but it may not be all that it seems


When discussing innovation there is one example that is always brought up as the model to follow - Google's 20% policy.

For those of you who don't know the basic premise, Google reportedly allow (or allowed) their employees to spend 20% of their time working on projects for Google that may or may not be outside their traditional role. It has been credited for the creation of Gmail and Adsense, whilst becoming possibly the best known innovation program in the world.

However, all may not be as it seems with the 20%.

There are a number of questions about it that are yet to really be answered, but key amongst them is whether it ever actually existed. This stems from a number of different sources, but primarily from Marissa Mayer, the 20th Google employee who became the CEO of Yahoo!, who responded to a question from a Yahoo! employee about the idea that 'It’s funny. People have been asking me since I got here, ‘When is Yahoo going to have 20% time?’ I’ve got to tell you the dirty little secret of Google’s 20% time. It’s really 120%,'. She then went on to say that rather than the 20% being the time you spend on a project instead of working on your duties, it's simply something that people do in addition to their primary tasks.

Whilst Mayer claims that 20% time is something that doesn't exist, in a 2004 letter to potential investors, Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote 'We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner'. This leaves a little confusion, given that Mayer worked at the company between 1999 and 2011, which means this letter was sent midway through her tenure, when it apparently didn't exist.

This leaves three potential scenarios:

- 20% time didn't exist then or now

- 20% time does exist

- 20% time existed, but changed over time

Trying to get the truth on the matter from publicly available information is difficult given the contrasting accounts from those within Google, but regardless of whether 20% ever existed, one thing is for certain - 20% time is not going to work for the vast majority people and most companies.

On a theoretical level 20% time makes a huge amount of sense because the more time you give somebody to be creative, the more creative they are likely to be. However, we don't live in a world where theory transposes perfectly onto reality. The likelihood is that if you give the average person 20% of their time to do whatever they want, they will do more of the thing that they spend 80% of the time doing. In an article for Inc. Yoram Solomon, Founder of Large Scale Creativity, argues that even putting in place innovation labs has little impact on promoting innovation, saying 'The greatest ideas hardly ever come from using 20% time away from work. They hardly ever come from the innovation lab.' Instead he argues that 'They come from busy people who had ideas while doing their day job, stayed late, and tried things without getting permission.'

This kind of work is how innovation is done, it is not something that is grown in a lab, it is something that comes from using a product or providing a service then seeing how it could be better or completely replaced. Most companies don't like this approach as it has the potential to disrupt workflows and can ultimately lead to lower productivity or even breaking the systems the company has put in place. The companies who allow for rules to be bent without coming down on people for trying new things are the ones who ultimately have the most success.

When we think of some of the biggest innovations within this space there has been a huge amount achieved through people having a drive and passion for something, whether that's done between 9-5 or 5-9. For instance, Hadoop was created by a team of unpaid coders outside of their regular jobs and has completely changed the way that the world deals with data and has created multi-billion dollar companies, like Hortonworks, as a result.

World-changing innovations do not occur because people have a specific space or more time to think about new ideas, the eureka moment where somebody just happens upon an idea from nothing does not generally happen. Instead, it is people doing normal things, finding an issue or opportunity from those activities and running with it, whether that's taking place within 20% of their work life or not. 

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