Google may call time on pet projects
Rumoured end of famous latitude to employees to pursue projects that interest them hints at a significant shift in corporate ethos
From left: Google’s Jean Wang, Isabelle Olsson and Kelly Liang are among a group of pioneering women behind Google Glass
How does Google stay so relentlessly innovative? From its earliest and most valuable breakthrough – putting order on the vast amounts of information online with its ingenious page-ranking algorithm – through to developing self-driving cars, the technology giant has been one of the most reliably pioneering, and unpredictable, companies in the world.
Part of that creative energy came from the unconventional corporate attitude that was built into its DNA by founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The most oft-quoted, of course, was the unofficial company motto: “Don’t Be Evil.” That aspiration has as often as not been used as a stick to beat the company with in the years since, particularly in light of its complex business dealings in China, and more recently after revelations of some degree of complicity in widespread surveillance by the US National Security Agency. In any case, the phrase captured a certain admirable idealism in the two founders, and an awareness of the awesome power they would soon wield. But the other major plank of Google’s corporate philosophy that was often cited as being vital to its relentless innovation was the famous 20 per cent time initiative – the latitude given to employees to spend a fifth of their working time on company-related projects that interest them. As a statement of corporate philosophy, it’s no exaggeration to say that 20 per cent time was almost as integral to the company’s identity as the notorious directive against evil-doing.
It hinged on the not exactly radical insight that if you hire lots of really smart people and give them a degree of freedom to pursue their own interests, you will end up with lots of potentially interesting ideas. Judicious recruitment and a healthy amount of employee autonomy could be a lucrative scenario. In their 2004 Founders’ IPO letter to prospective investors, they explained that “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20 per cent 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.”
Google most certainly benefitted from that innovative atmosphere – a whole raft of products, such as AdSense, Gmail, Google Transit, Google Talk and Google News, resulted from 20 per cent time. And of course the beloved Google Reader, the RSS client that dominated feed reading until it was mercilessly killed a few months ago. Back in 2006, Marissa Mayer revealed that 20 per cent time gave rise to half of the products Google launched in the second half of 2005.