20% time…at Google, and SnapStream

20% time…it’s one of those mythically interesting things that Google does.  Basically, you get 20% of your time to work on any other project.  Keep in mind it has to be something potentially useful…it can’t be “Doing my laundry”.  Besides, Google has people to do that for you anyway.

Keep in mind, Google didn’t invent this idea.  3M has had “15% time” for a while now.  Of course, I can’t think of something big that came out of 3M since the Post-It note story we all know by now.

My next big idea? Get ready for it…

“25% time.”

OK, seriously.  20% time makes sense since there’s 5 days in a standard work week.  We spent a lot of time here at SnapStream figuring out whether we wanted to do the whole 20% time thing as well.

Pros:
– Explicitly assigns time for people to explore outside their assigned tasks and develop breadth.  Not only does this force people to develop themselves, it also says as an organization that we’re keeping our eyes open for new opportunities.
– Allows people to fix or work on things they personally feel very strongly about…essentially, saying no back to the priorities handed down to them.  Hopefully that builds morale and engages them.

Cons:
– People might fritter away their time instead of focusing.
– Theoretically, you have 20% less focus on whatever you’re trying to accomplish.  Is the long term benefit worth the short term less of time?

Ultimately we decided to do it.  And although it’s only been about three weeks, I’m pretty pleased at what folks are starting to work on.  We’ve got folks exploring really cool ideas that we’ve always wanted to do, but that I personally just haven’t been able to focus on myself.  And I find it exciting that other people around here care enough to go after these ideas.  I think it says a lot of good things about our developers.

So, I’ll revisit this at some future date.  But so far, so good.

Of course, then there’s this questionable anecdote about Larry Page going  a little overboard on 20% time.  I’m sure Google is suffering from a bit of what I call the “Martha Stewart phenomenon”…which is basically that people get bored of hearing about success and greatness and start looking to take potshots and drag people down.  But hell, this story might be true.  Frankly, I’d look for something like this every once in a while…as long as the guy isn’t a lunatic.  You know why?  Someone truly passionate is going to be a little abrasive or shake some trees every once in a while.  They’re going to be controversial.  The people who never shake the tree and never fuss…be worried about filling an organization with those people.

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