Jitendra Madhav Ramchandani

August 25, 2010

Google and the Myth of Free Time

(By Chris Trimble — a well-known innovation speaker and consultant, is on the faculty of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.)

In my travels, I'm frequently asked to share my thoughts about Google's stated practice of encouraging individuals to spend 20 percent of their time pursuing innovative projects of their own inspiration.

It's not hard to understand where the question comes from. Many people are told routinely that innovation is everybody's job. And yet, the pressures of day-to-day operations are enormous. Who has time to innovate?

But my answer to their question about the 20 percent policy is always the same: It sounds expensive. Very expensive. For sake of argument, let's say 60 percent of the cost structure in your organization goes to salary and benefits. If you were to allocate 20 percent of each person's time for innovation, it would immediately cut 12 points from your margins. Twelve points! Even if you cut it down by extending the 20 percent policy only to a subset of employees, those are huge numbers.

Could it be worth it? Will the investment pay off in the long run?

Unfortunately, it probably won't. To see why, you have to recognize that innovation is a two-part adventure. First, you have to come up with a great idea. Second, you have to execute it. My co-author Vijay Govindarajan and I refer to that second step as the other side of innovation because it is often underappreciated or even completely overlooked.

The problem with the 20 percent policy is that it's likely to generate a great deal of activity on the idea side of innovation and very little on the execution side — the other side. Think about it. Just how much can one person accomplish with 20 percent of their time? They might be able to complete some very small projects, but if we're talking about anything significant — a new product, a new service, or a brand new businesses — then 20 percent of one person's time is just not much to work with.

Even if a few people come together organically to tackle the same challenge with a "group 20 percent," resources are still slim. Perhaps it's enough to articulate a great idea. Perhaps it's possible to even complete some research that supports the idea's viability. But what of the rest of the journey? The other side of innovation is out of reach.

The hidden risk in the 20 percent policy is that you end up generating a mountain of great ideas on paper that never become anything more than a mountain of great ideas on paper.

It's probably best to view Google's stated policy with at least some mild skepticism. Does Google really live up to its 20 percent ideal? I'm sure the company is delighted that their 20 percent philosophy has become so well known and so readily accepted as reality. It must be terrific for recruiting. But I think it is most likely that 20 percent time is an ideal the company aspires to but finds very difficult to live up to in practice, even with their seemingly boundless resources — a luxury most companies can't even imagine.

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