There is nothing new about 20% time

Reading stuff out there on the seedy internet one gets the feeling that “20% time”, the practice of encouraging employees to work on their pet projects on company time, is some wondrous innovative idea invented by the GOOG.

People blog in hushed tones about “Google’s famed 20% time” and wonder aloud about the real benefits of such a scheme. Some even decide to try it on their own employees.

I am no innovation management expert, but even I know that 20% time is not a new concept.

Permitted bootlegging is an idea older than Google. Established companies such as 3M, Novell or HP have encouraged this work-on-your-wacky-stuff-on-company-time approach since time immemorial (i.e. from before the 80s). The term bootlegging was introduced into the innovation literature as long ago as 1967. The most famous product to come out of a permitted bootlegging effort is not GMail, but the post-it note.

Granted, Google is one of the few companies to put “innovation time off” into employee’s contracts, and they do deserve credit for that. [1] But it is not exactly like they invented the wheel of innovation management.

As for the benefits of 20% time, these are largely more indirect than the pundits would have you believe, and they are hard to measure. A 1998 Wired article explained it best:

3M's 15 percent time is valuable simply because it "makes it OK to daydream -- and I don't think you can put that in a box and make it a two-hour slot in your day."

[Disclaimer: As of this writing, I am a full-time employee of Google. I am also a joyful user of 20% time. The opinions expressed here are solely my own and do not in any way represent those of my employer. Etcetera.]

[1] Does anybody know if 3M ever put their 15 percent Rule on paper?