Google and the Myth of Free Time

Google is known as a very innovative company. In particular is their strategy famous that allows each employee to invest 20% of the working time into unconditional work, or into projects that are neither predefined, nor governed (Innovation Friday).

Here in my blog, I have written several articles, in which I discuss the usefulness of this approach.

In his article in the Harvard Business Review → Google and the Myth of Free Time, Chris Trimble writes about this strategy as well. In contrast to me and others, he basically does not think very positive about Google’a approach to foster innovation.

Using my experiences with both, a similar approach, and the development of innovative products, I would like to comment on his article.

The Ideas

Chris Trimble argues in his article that Google’s innovation approach can not work, as it is far to exensive, and as the individual employees do not have sufficient capacity to really create more than a vast amount of abundant ideas, which will never flow into real products:

„But my answer to their question about the 20 percent policy is always the same: It sounds expensive. Very expensive……

Could it be worth it? Will the investment pay off in the long run?

Unfortunately, it probably won’t. To see why, you have to recognize that innovation is a two-part adventure. First, you have to come up with a great idea. Second, you have to execute it. My co-author Vijay Govindarajan and I refer to that second step as the other side of innovation because it is often underappreciated or even completely overlooked.

The problem with the 20 percent policy is that it’s likely to generate a great deal of activity on the idea side of innovation and very little on the execution side — the other side….“  → Google and the Myth of Free Time.

My Experiences

I think that Trimble does not consider all elements of Google’s innovation practice, and erronously reaches to a limited conclusion. In particular, I think that Google’s innovation concept needs to be viewed much broader than just limiting it to „costs“ of 20%, and „employees that can not transfer their ideas to working products“.

Here are some reasons why the concept can not viewed as limited as Trimble does.

Idea Generation

Following Schumpeter, innovation requires both ideas, and the delivery of a product that implements these ideas. Basically holds: No ideas, or no products from these ideas, no innovation. Thus, a company needs both, ideas, and processes to convert ideas into products.

Google’s practice to allow employees to perform unconditional research first of all targets at the idea generation, and should not be missunderstood as a means to predominantly create new products. It is quire clear that such an innovation approach can and should not be used to produce products. For the conversion of ideas into deliverables it needs official units.

However, for me this need for official production units should not be missused as an argument to stop idea creation. I further think that the argument that there are „too many“ ideas, much more than we can transfer into products, is a wrong argument. First of all I doubt that there is something like „too much“ ideas, and then I think that not the quantity of ideas is important, but the quality. However to find one very good idea, you normally need to invest into many not-so-good ideas.

In particular in the IT industry it is often neccessary that experts invest their innovative time in testing new ideas, before he can prove that the idea can materialize at all. To improve the quality of the ideas, it is vital that you partially invest into experts that create quantity of ideas.


The IT industry is known to be highly dynamic, and flexible. To do their jobs the employees need to possess a high level of qualification. As there is always more to be done than there is capacity available, it is quite normal that experts and most key employees are highly overbooked.

However, normally these overbooked experts are the real sources of innovative ideas. However, to create ideas, everybody, including experts need spare time other than daily business. These people do not possess time to innovate, if we do not actively help them to find this time.

Google’s practice to allow employees to invest in innovation works like an intelligent program to avoid overbooking of key employees. This offer clearly states that creative room is valued much more important than one additional backlog item. However it also states that there are backlog items that are more important than innovation.

These employees see on the one hand side the need to innovate. On the other hand they see the needs, which emerge from their daily business. What often happens in models like the one used at Google, is that a tradeoff takes place between both time buckets (innovation versus daily business), which considers the relative importances.

In effect Google allows each employee to take 20% of the time for innovation. In effect, these employees will probably take less time. However Google can be sure that this time these emloyees invest into innovation has a higher value than the backlog items, which they would develop instead.

Avoiding Micro Management

In particular the highly qualified employees in the IT partially think like small companies. While it might be common in other industries to widely predefine the work of employees, and to administer and measure each part of the working time, many employees in the IT do not like to be governed too closely.

A different trend more an more emerges from the ongoing industrialization of the software development. This is the trend, to understand developers as „coders“ who are just supposed to code what others have defined.

I think, both is wrong. With most products you do not need coders, but you need experts in software development. Furthermore, you need to create an organization that avoids micro management, as this would stop these experts from being creative.

As these IT employees need room for own decisions, which they might not even want to discuss with their bosses, and as they need to be seen as much more than just „coders“, you need programs like the Google program, which shows these people, how valued they are.

Many innovative projects are too small to ASK a boss for time to work on. On the other hand these ideas are often too vague to be able to serve as a fully defined business case. Google‘ approach avoids both problems. The model furthermore prevents bosses from micromanaging their developers.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation is a very valuable type of innovation, as it often opens the door for completely new products. However this type of innovation requires employees, which are experts in their areas, and it requires white spaces in the company, which allows these ideas to grow within a protected area.

Google’s model in particular supports the invention of disruptive products, as it minimizes the influence of non-experts, which might otherwise kill an idea, before it is born.

If Google would create just one successful disruptive product from such a program, I think that the entire program would have been paid.

Further Information

In my following articles you can find additional, and related reading:

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