Why Google Axed Its "20% Time" Policy

Even before removing the policy, engineers had been discouraged from using company time for independent projects.

The policy that gave rise to some of Google's most iconic products—Gmail, Google Reader, Google Talk, and more—is being axed.

Employees previously used the search giant's 20% time perk to work on side projects one day a week. It's a policy that's taken off in Silicon Valley, with other companies following suit for out-of-the-box ideas.

But as noted by a former Google employee, there were barriers to overcome before a 20% project could see the light of day. In addition to seeking technical and product approvals, engineers were also responsible for maintenance. Furthermore, when it came time for peer reviews, he noted that employees who dedicated their full time on a sanctioned project were more likely receive better marks and promotions.

The 20% policy, which used to apply to all employees, had also narrowed in scope over the years. Even before its removal, engineers had to seek approval from management, who for the sake of productivity were discouraged from green-lighting independent projects.

The end of 20% time doesn't mean the end of innovation for Google. With more Google X projects coming to light, it's apparent the company still has big ideas, from Glass to Project Loon, the latest idea to come to light that plans to use balloons to provide Internet access in remote areas.

[Image: Flickr user brionv]

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15 Comments

  • adey jarvis

    Its not that illogical to bring independent projects into core business.  The 20% policy suggested (to me at least) that innovation was outside business as usual. Staff can still suggest product innovation and get internal funding if it meets with wider business goals.  I would also suggest that the 'wins' have been minor for Google based on every member of staff innovating 1 day a week. Killing this wastage is normal as a company matures.

  • Fikir

    "Furthermore, when it came time for peer reviews, he noted that employees who dedicated their full time on a sanctioned project were more likely receive better marks and promotions."

  • Drgitmoney

    worse article ever!!!  i now am going to cut myself for reading such stupidity.

  • William L. Weaver

    As a more mature company, Google now has the resources to fund a "Department of Innovation" in Google X. Before, everyone was asked to work 20% time for an Innovation Department that did not exist.

    Now that there is a stable of mature and growing products, it makes sense to have employees work on their assigned products and allow Google X to innovate. I'm sure that individual employees that have new, innovative ideas can present them to Google X for consideration or, as is often the case in Silicon Valley, find some investors and set off on their own.

  • Conrad

    Sorry William, but you are positing that only people that management chooses can be innovative. I think it is more likely to be just the opposite.

  • William L. Weaver

    Wow... did my comment come off wrong, Conrad. I'm with you - management as a gatekeeper is a really bad idea. What I am suggesting is the age-old adage that "Success at Playing the Game" changes the game is applicable here. As young, competitive companies adopt Google's early 80/20 model for innovation, Google needs to keep innovating into its next organizational structure. While Google was running production at 80% there were very few competitors that even understood Google's vision of the connected web.

    Now that Google is successful and competitors are popping up on the hour, Google needs to produce at 100% to bring the products in their current innovation pipeline to market in a move to define the market rather than needing to "re-define" the market.

    I'm suggesting a living system analogy that inhales and exhales... After an extended season of rampant basic research and innovation, Google needs to move into production. The difficulty that other companies have had [Microsoft, HP, Nokia, IBM] is recognizing when to switch back to innovation. I would suggest that seasons and cycles are an appropriate model.

  • VKnight

    What you are describing is called "stagnation".  Only manager approved experimental projects will even be allowed to explore, and only the hand picked team at Google X will be allowed to explore.

    This squashes their innovation massively.

    Tell me - had Google not had 80/20, would they be even nearly as great as they are now?  How does taking away what was possibly their most powerful innovative weapon, turning them more into a Microsoft or an Apple help them?

    With the recent crap Google's pulling on Chromecast to suck up to media companies, essentially blocking ALL non-approved app development, setting up an iOS-style walled garden, it's really obvious that in 10-20 years, they're going to be Microsoft.

    Stagnant and dying as the best talent leave to form their own company because they're sick of just fixing existing systems instead of innovating.

  • Quadelirus

    They've always had the motto, but never bothered to live it. Remember bowing to China?

  • Andri Sigurðsson

    Silly misleading title, even more silly because simply something like "Google axes 20% policy" would have been just a good.

  • surajdpant

    "But as noted by a former Google employee, there were barriers to overcome before a 20% project could see the light of day. In addition to seeking technical and product approvals, engineers were also responsible for maintenance. Furthermore, when it came time for peer reviews, he noted that employees who dedicated their full time on a sanctioned project were more likely receive better marks and promotions."

  • Renato Murakami

    Might not be the end of innovation, but it certainly sounds like another nail to the coffin on the company Google used to be.

    I wonder if now, after Google and Apple, we'll have to rely on yet another startup for crazy new ideas... maybe it's only me, but nowadays both of them are sounding much like "the same ol' stuff" with notorious signs of big corporation disease here and there.

  • VKnight

    Yeah, after reading this, I'm positive I don't want to work for Google.

    They expect their employees to work like +60 hours a week since you "love your job".  That might have been fine with 80/20 time, but I don't know anyone in software who'd willing work themselves to death like that and be given absolutely zero latitude to innovate.  

    That's when your smart, innovative employees jump ship.  Because they get bored and overworked.  

    I'm keeping my eyes peeled for the next "Google" startup in the next 10-20 years.