20% Time At Google and Built To Last

Found this on Slashdot a while back. Joe Beda talks about 20% time at Google and how it works.

Its really cool to see a company initiate this kind of environment from the top. In my experience, some of the best work that I have done and the work that, in my opinion, has provided the most benefit, is the work which was started in 20% of my home time due to lack of an official policy like this at work. Oddly, all the benefits that were later realized were not deemed important at the time the ideas were presented at work in many cases.

The idea of allowing innovation to happen by focusing on it as part of ones normal work life rather than having to spend “extra time at home” on it is not new. Jim Collins mentions a number of companies in his book Built to Last : Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (Harper Business Essentials). There is a whole chapter called Try a Lot of Stuff And Keep What Works in which he outlines how companies such as 3M (with their 15% rule) stimulated innovation by encouraging technical people to spend time experimenting with new things in order to find new markets or new ideas to sell. These companies understood that in order to evolve you have to try a lot of different things and figure out which ones work and which ones do not. They also realized that the most effective place to get new ideas was from their technical staff — not the management team.

Unfortunately, many companies do not understand that in order for a new idea to be proven or disproven you have to have something people can see and touch. The only way to get that is to try it out and then show it to people. Similarly, benefits of a given process or automation effort is not able to be articulated as well as it can be demonstrated. In other words, you won’t be able to express the benefit until you can point to it and subsequently point to the waste that used to be there (or in many cases, the empty space that this new “thing” now fills) in order to really justify the “cost” of doing the work.

“Traditional” companies have a lot to learn from newer companies like Google and the histories of companies like those in Built to Last. Some of the greatest cost savings and “revenue generators” may come from just letting your people play with new ideas rather than contracting people to come up with new ideas for you. After all, who knows your business better than your people working in it?

One thing that Joe Beda points out in his article that is really important is that this is not just a “thing” to implement. It is a philosophy towards running your business. You don’t just do it, you live by it. If you just try to do it without making the philosophy a core part of who you are, you are likely to fail, as your core values tend to override all of your good intentions. It’s just human nature.

I find it really admirable that companies like Google are implementing the ideas laid out in the Good to Great and Built to Last books. I personally think these books are gems and would encourage managers and non-managers alike to read these books and to take the ideas expressed in them to heart. Once you are done reading them, look around for companies like Google who are actually implementing the ideas in the books and start asking yourself what would happen if you did the same thing.

You might be really surprised.