Google’s “20% time” program is not working as well as it should. I love the idea of giving passionate engineers the opportunity to invent and build, but the policy needs tweaking. Here is my recommendation:
- Engineers can submit projects to the Google management team.
- Managers can approve projects.
- Approved projects get resources, including engineering time, to achieve their vision.
- Google invests 20% of its engineers’ time to these projects.
- Managers’ approvals are tracked, plus bonuses for good records.
Why? Lots of reasons. Not every engineer should spend 20% of their time on side projects. Some engineers should be spending 100% of their time on their side projects, others 0%. Managers who demonstrate years of good decisions form the teams who lead Google into the future.
For Google to maximize the potential of its great teams and ideas, it needs to embrace a more flexible and competitive policy. This plan turns Google managers into a sort of investment committee, the result will exploit competition and align incentives to optimize performance.
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I remember when this was all the buzz and then back in 2013 they supposedly said they “killed” the program but in reality Google couldn’t kill it even if it wanted to! Google really didn’t invent this idea because I believe 3M had originally started something on a 15% time? But regardless, the whole point of this time is to let employees tinker with a work-related passion project of their choosing or of their own creation. This is how we got Gmail, AdSense even Google News.
At Facebook, there used to be a “Prototype Forum” that the hacks would have to go through to get their experimental products out and Apple has “Blue Sky” that allows small teams to spend a few weeks on a pet engineering product.
These 20% programs were not as big of deal as the universal goof-around-for-free day that the pampered Google employees received but hey….maybe I am just jealous!