A recent article in Business Insider caught my eyes: The truth about Google's famous '20% time' policy. In their 2004 IPO letter, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote: "We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google... This empowers them to be more creative and innovative."
However, the article went on to describe that the process really doesn't work, and is not longer in place.
Theoretically, it sounds like a great idea. If you give me 20% of the time (say, Friday) away from my desk and daily work, with a single purpose of being creative, I should be able to generate some great ideas. So why doesn't it work?
This would be the same as giving me access to a race track, a great racing motorcycle (sorry, I'm a motorcycle guy, not cars...), but no gas. It wouldn't do any good. I will just stare at the motorcycle, then the track, then the motorcycle again... But I will not break any record.
20% of your time is just as a fallacy as allocating space for an innovation lab, where employees can go to be innovative. Both are part of the company's "official" drive for innovation. It is done much more for public appearance than having real substance and probability of success. Give an employee 20% of their time, and they will use it to catch up on email. Give them an innovation lab, and they will catch up on email there, where nobody bothers them...
The greatest ideas hardly ever come from using 20% time away from work. They hardly ever come from the innovation lab. They come from busy people who had ideas while doing their day job, stayed late, and tried things without getting permission. They don't come from companies who drive innovation. They don't come from companies who celebrate innovation. But they come from companies who allow their people to try new things and fail without consequences. They come from companies that have the right climate for employees to be creative. They come from people who do those things that allow them to generate great ideas.
You see, it doesn't matter if you tell your employees (and the world) that you want to drive innovation. It doesn't matter if you celebrate every little insignificant attempt at innovation they show. They know it is not genuine. The only thing that matters is when you let your employees try things you haven't authorized and fail. Because the only way to guarantee they will never fail is to never let them try (or make it very painful for them to fail). But those employees will never succeed, either.
Think about it...