Just How Valuable Is Google's "20% Time"?

Harvard Business Review

Reports of the death or deliquescence of Google's "20% time," which allows employees to devote one day a week to side projects, may well be exaggerated. They certainly inspire less controversy than Yahoo's targeted euthanizing of telecommuting. But both emphasize the importance of Silicon Valley's most precious value-added differentiator: technical talent.

The care, feeding, and culture of productive talent deserve all the attention and debate they get — and more. Virtually everyone who's made money from the App Store or competed against a Salesforce.com or SurveyMonkey viscerally understands the huge differences between "pretty good" developers and those best described as "terrific." "Acqu-hiring" has become both a buzzword and a best practice for a reason. Relative to the enormous economic value talent can deliver, gluten-free gourmet cafeterias and concierge service represent a small price to pay.

But employing talent is one thing. Keeping it productively innovative and innovatively productive is another. What happens to self-image and individual expectations as enterprise definitions of "productively innovative" and "innovatively productive" change? If people believe they've been promised the opportunity to devote up to one day a week pursuing disruptive innovation insights, they're arguably entitled to feel a little cheated or miffed when told to "double down" on their day jobs. At a certain point, innovation cultures are as much about "credibility" as creativity and ingenuity.

That's why Google presents such a special case. No one doubts founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are passionately committed — intellectually and emotionally — to innovation as core to their entrepreneurial identities and effectiveness. That sensibility made Google Google.

Yet it's also true the company shut down Google Labs, its popular intrapreneurial playground and beta site, to the surprise and disappointment of employees and customers alike. More than a few Googlers also feel that Google X — the "disruptive/new paradigms" skunkworks operation launched in 2010 — now owns "big think" innovation hearts and minds of their founders. Google X innovation gets to create the future, they observe, while Google innovation gets to improve the business. Their innovation discretion shrinks while Google X's horizons expand.

Is this perception unfair or inaccurate? Certainly, many people inside the company and out agree that Larry Page took the late Steve Jobs's advice and admonitions very seriously: "The main thing I stressed was focus," Jobs said. "Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up. It's now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they're dragging you down. They're turning you into Microsoft. They're causing you to turn out products that are adequate but not great."

Neither Steve Jobs nor Apple culture encouraged, nurtured, or celebrated 20% time among employees to inspire innovation. To the contrary, Apple's clarity of vision and relentless dedication to user experience and design assured that the company's world-class talent would overwhelmingly focus their efforts on delivery, not novelty. Apple innovation culture was more top-down alignment of talent than facilitation of bottom-up empowerment. But successfully delivering that vision to overwhelming market approval proved intoxicating and addictive for much of the company's top technical talent.

But I don't think the story is Page or Brin becoming more Jobs-like or that Google's innovation culture has pruned individual discretion in favor of greater organizational alignment. My view — reflected in the comments of many Googlers — is that the company is internally debating how its most talented employees generate the most valuable innovation. Do they productively innovate better by more rigorously focusing on their ongoing projects? Or do curiosity-driven and/or passion-driven initiatives lead to measurably better innovation outcomes?

Google has publicly defined itself as an organization that wants to be data driven in its most important business decisions. The company has put people analytics of individual talent and team performance alike at the core of managing itself. Yes, there's flakiness and inherent subjectivity in many of the metrics. But the simple truth is that Google as both a culture and a global enterprise wants to take more data more seriously.

The obvious result? Google's innovation culture is being shaped as much by the performance data of its people as by their technical intuitions and insights. In other words, tomorrow's Google won't embrace 20% "free time" for everyone; innovation best practice will mean some individuals and teams will have as much discretionary time as they need while others will have virtually nil.

You've got a problem with that? Well, the data suggest you shouldn't. I don't doubt for a minute that Google's founders and top leadership will ultimately rely on their gut instincts and intuitions — albeit richly informed by data — when the time comes to hire, fire, and/or acquire. Nor do I doubt that the care, feeding, and culture of technical talent will increasingly be determined and defined by data. That's where credibility will come from and, yes, that's what will sharpen entrepreneurial focus, as well.

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