Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.
"What are you doing?" you ask.
"Can't you see?" comes the impatient reply. "I'm sawing down this tree."
"You look exhausted!" you exclaim. "How long have you been at it?"
"Over five hours," he returns, "and I'm beat! This is hard work."
"Well why don't you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?" you inquire. "I'm sure it would go a lot faster."
"I don't have time to sharpen the saw," the man says emphatically. "I'm too busy sawing!"
The process of cutting dulls the blade. In order to do the job more effectively, the saw needs to be sharpened.
Unfortunately, not everyone feels they can take time away from the tasks at hand to sharpen the saw. They focus on getting their primary work done with the current tools at hand, unaware that their saw blade has become dull.
According to Nelson Minar, a software engineer at Google, the Google philosophy can be expressed in five general principles:
- Work on things that matter,
- Affect everyone in the
- Solve problems with algorithms if possible,
- Hire bright people
and give them lots of freedom, and
- Don’t be afraid to try new things.
[Google's] mission - to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful - requires exceptional thinking and technical expertise. Here are some of the things we do to facilitate a motivated, inspired workforce:
- We work in small teams to promote spontaneity, creativity and speed.
- We listen to every idea, on the theory that any Googler can come up with the next great one.
- We provide the resources to turn great ideas into reality.
Genentech and 3M used the 20 percent project for years before Google -- 3M's Post-it Notes came from a researcher’s personal quest.
- We offer our engineers "20-percent time" so that they're free to work on what they're really passionate about.
And it seems to be a good practice to follow for Google as well. In 2004, Gmail was launched because the idea that there could be a better way to handle email caught the attention of a Google engineer who thought it might be a good "20 percent time" project.
While not everything that has been generated from the 20 percent projects have had the longevity or impact of Gmail or 3M's Post-it notes, some interesting and useful initiatives have evolved. According to Google:
We work hard to create an environment which is inclusive, collaborative and innovative. One of the ways in which Google actively encourages innovation in the workplace is through promoting the “20% project”. All Google engineers have 20% of their time to pursue projects that they’re passionate about. This has lead to the creation of some well-known Google products, like Gmail, and Google News – products that might otherwise have taken entire start-ups to launch.
Some Googlers, like Shannon, use this time to volunteer on initiatives like Google’s program for pre-university outreach. This passion developed from her personal experience while starting a family and raising her daughter, when she realized how important it was to enhance the technical development of young girls like her daughter. “Google provided me with the opportunity to partner with other people within the company to make a broader impact on the outside community and to strengthen young students’ interest in math and science. It’s been extremely rewarding."Of course, what works at Google may not work everywhere. You have to have proper work environment to begin with.
At my office, we have a set of shared values that bind us together -- integrity, innovation, urgency, independence and respect. Along with our mission, these values articulate who we are and what we believe, influence our goals, guide our actions, and help us to explain our aspirations to others. This value framework might be a good foundation to implement the 20-percent project.
I'd be interested in more stories from organizations that have successfully implemented the 20-percent project .
- What are the obstacles to implementing the 20-percent project at your office?
- If you are implementing the 20-percent project, what works and what can be improved on?
- What do you need to have in place to succeed?