Google’s 20% rule does not exist anymore: the end of a legend?


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Google employees are only required to spend 80% of their time on their assigned projects; they are free to spend the remaining 20 however they like. This policy is one of the prime examples of Google’s famous corporate culture. Or at least it used to be: the rule has been abandoned over the last few months. The decision has been met with disbelief. Surely Google’s innovative corporate culture can’t simply cease to exist? After all, without the 20% rule, products like Gmail and Google Maps would never have seen the light of day.

Of course this doesn’t mean Google will stop innovating. It’s just that management is worried that the vibe of innovation that drives the company will become so fragmented that five years from now, Google will no longer know what it stands for. Google still derives 95% of its income from paid search options and its turnover accounts for more than 30% of the total search market. An efficient and very profitable product. The company’s many innovative products are often quite fun but so far they have failed to produce any real blockbusters.

Google has embarked on a targeted search for a handful of products that will not only make them famous but that will also make them money. For this purpose, they have assembled a group of top specialists who will work on the project full-time. Does that sound like a classic corporate structure of a company where this would be called the R&D department, or is it just me?

Google is abandoning its 20% rule and has decided to innovate in a more “conventional” way. Spiced up with the unique Google culture, true, but a watered-down version nonetheless. The same thing happened with Yahoo. When their new CEO took the reins, homeworking privileges were largely revoked and Yahoo employees returned to their Yahoo desks. Marissa Mayer claims that working at the office builds a culture that nurtures creativity and inspiration. The world was shocked to find that an internet company could object to working from home.

The evolution towards the new working model, the new customer and the new organization can be likened to a pendulum motion. In the old days no one was allowed to work from home. Customers were a necessary evil and the boss was the boss, period. The “new” age turned everything upside down. All of a sudden, everyone “needed” homeworking privileges. Perhaps we’ve become client-dominated instead of client-orientated and the boss is no longer the boss. Companies like Google and Yahoo were pioneers of the “new” era. Perhaps they are now the pioneers of the new model that is a cross between the two previous ones. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far and now it’s swinging back towards the center. The center can be a lovely environment where flexibility and customer and staff centricity are important, but not at all costs. A company wants to make a profit and should have the freedom to ensure its future by guaranteeing a profitable approach.

In the new model, autonomous employees will collaborate with an empathic but decisive management team. The leaders will maintain a strict policy with built-in flexibility toward staff. Flexibility for flexibility’s sake is not a sustainable model.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steven Van Belleghem
Steven Van Belleghem is inspirator at B-Conversational. He is an inspirator, a coach and gives strategic advice to help companies better understand the world of conversations, social media and digital marketing. In 2010, he published his first book The Conversation Manager, which became a management literature bestseller and was awarded with the Marketing Literature Prize. In 2012, The Conversation Company was published. Steven is also part time Marketing Professor at the Vlerick Management School. He is a former managing partner of the innovative research agency InSites Consulting.


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