Popularised by Google, 20% time allows employees the freedom to spend up to 20% of their time working on a project of their choosing.
Employees can allocate 20% time to any project that they are passionate about pursuing in the belief that it will benefit the company, from incremental improvements of existing business processes, to developing totally new product and service offerings.
This is generally operated on a somewhat ad hoc basis, providing an outlet for the company’s brightest, most creative, and persistent employees to bypass traditional bureaucracy that can often hamper innovation.
Strategy behind the Play:
The core idea behind 20% time is that modern-day workers can make valuable contributions to the organisation beyond their daily job functions, and are most valuable when granted protected space to be creative and innovative. Empowering employees to innovate can build an enduring culture of innovation that can have major, long-lasting strategic impact on the organisation.
"If you're not failing enough, you're not trying hard enough…. If it doesn't work, move on." -- Head of AdWords service, Google
This rapid, iterative approach to innovation means that employees have the opportunity to generate high volumes of experimental products and services that may form part of an “innovation concept portfolio”. Whilst many of the ideas will fail, this provides valuable learning opportunities that can be shared amongst colleagues.
The return horizon on 20% time ranges from quick-win, incremental innovations, through to potential breakthrough innovations that can reshape the industry in the long-run.
Limitations & Risks:
Initiating the Play:
Launching this play requires a relatively low initial capital outlay with the majority of costs relating to productivity losses and opportunity costs of employees balancing 20% projects with their ‘day jobs’.
Time to launch is 1-3 months depending on the internal approval process and number of resources supporting the play.
Key steps to initiate:
Running the Play:
20% time is a low resource intensive play as it is generally an informal, self-governing program with little overhead. Having said that, corporates that invest in systems, processes and capabilities that support the program will likely achieve higher returns.
Typical variations of this play include:
Empowering employees to innovate can build an enduring culture of innovation that can have major, long-lasting strategic impact on the organisation.
Play in Action:
“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.”
These ‘significant advances’ include Gmail, Google News, and AdSense.
At Google there are no hard-and-fast rules about 20% time; it is embedded in the company culture, and is a practice that exists more as a widespread understanding than as a written policy.
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