20 Percent Time
Empowering employees to innovate, collaborate and engage in building out an innovation pipeline.
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.
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.
Increases employee engagement and creates a lasting corporate culture
Promotes collaboration with colleagues, breaks down silos
Can generate a large pipeline of new ideas – continuous innovation
Limitations & Risks
Lack of visibility on what employees are working on can create management challenges and potential productivity losses
Risk of turning into ‘120% time’ (i.e. employees contribute additional 20% effort, working on projects on top of their full work load)
Only motivated and passionate employees will engage in this play
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:
Gain executive endorsement/approval
Develop policies/guidelines for staff and managers
Communication plan to generate awareness and engagement
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.
Ongoing communications including innovation success/win stories will drive increased employee engagement
On the ground support from managers is just as critical as executive sponsorship
Typical variations of this play include:
Range of time allotted to employees; from 15-25%
Limiting or targeting which employees can access the program; typically engineering/product development centric
Requiring management approvals for time above a certain threshold
Initiating the 20% time rule may require a fundamental cultural shift, as the move to an organisation-wide innovation focus may be unfamiliar where all time was previously spent on core business/functional unit activities
This play often makes sense in the growth stage of a business, as the bottom-up approach may be somewhat scattergun – with ideas rapidly generated becoming either fast fails or thriving successes – but no focused way to guarantee success
Play in Action
In a letter to Google’s investors in 2004, the founders 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.”
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.