Is Google’s 20 Percent Time Philosophy a Viable Innovation Strategy?

Google’s “20 Percent Time” philosophy has existed for almost two decades and is still an active program. It gives engineers one day a week to work on whatever they want – projects that interest them, jobs that aren’t in their job description, or a bug that needs fixing. This strategy has been credited with the development of some of Google’s most successful products, such as Gmail and Adsense. 

But is this approach really a viable innovation strategy?

The Pros of Google’s 20 Percent Time Philosophy

Google’s “20 Percent Time” philosophy offers employees unparalleled autonomy, flexibility, and discretion to explore their own ideas and interests. By participating in this program, employees experience an increased creative capacity, which produces innovative solutions that would otherwise remain unexplored. This was seen in a survey conducted by BuiltIn, wherein 80% of respondents claimed they felt more creative when given the freedom to work on side projects during 20 Percent Time. 

Furthermore, 77% reported feeling more engaged in their job after participating in 20 Percent Time activities; this proves that allowing teams to pursue independent endeavours increases productivity and career satisfaction. These results provide supporting evidence that companies embrace Google’s “20 Percent” culture as an effective strategy for creating a culture of innovation and driving success.

The Cons of Google’s 20 Percent Time Philosophy

Despite its potential benefits, Google’s “20 Percent Time” philosophy can also have drawbacks. For example, measuring the impact of initiatives developed through 20 Percent Time can be challenging since many projects may never reach completion or see any real-world application. 

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In addition, the same research conducted by BuiltIn revealed that developers on small teams were especially unlikely to take advantage of activities involved in 20 Percent Time. This reluctance is due to several factors, particularly fear of failure and a lack of motivation. 

Despite these drawbacks, Google has continued encouraging its staff to use part of their workweek for personal development and engagement in projects outside their regular roles to fuel their creative thinking.

Steve Jobs’ Take on Autonomy and Focus

Steve Jobs was famously against giving employees too much autonomy or freedom regarding innovation. Instead, he believed focus was vital:

“One of Apple’s greatest strengths is its ability to focus on just a few things at a time, an entrepreneurial trait difficult to imagine at a corporation [this size]. Saying no at Apple is as important as saying yes.”

Jobs’ approach was very different from Google’s “20 Percent Time” philosophy which encourages employees to explore multiple ideas simultaneously without worrying about failure or lack of success.

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