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At this point, Google’s “20 percent time” system is pretty well known and actually pretty old in internet time. In the words of a Google engineer in 2006:

The 20 percent time is a well-known part of our philosophy [at Google], enabling engineers to spend one day a week working on projects that aren’t necessarily in our job descriptions. You can use the time to develop something new, or if you see something that’s broken, you can use the time to fix it.

It’s also been hotly debated on various blogs and web forums the last few years.

Recently, Chris Trimble at the Harvard Business Review blog voiced his opinion and stirred things up a bit again. Chris asserts that the “free time” policy is more of a myth than a viable option for most companies:

It’s probably best to view Google’s stated policy with at least some mild skepticism. Does Google really live up to its 20 percent ideal? I’m sure the company is delighted that their 20 percent philosophy has become so well known and so readily accepted as reality. It must be terrific for recruiting. But I think it is most likely that 20 percent time is an ideal the company aspires to but finds very difficult to live up to in practice, even with their seemingly boundless resources — a luxury most companies can’t even imagine.

The main part of Chris’s argument is based on his belief that free time might generate a lot of ideas, but few, if any, of them will likely see production. As such, allocating one-fifth of employees’ time to exploring their individual ideas would be too costly to the bottom line.

If you know me, you’ll probably guess correctly that I don’t accept this view.

How we got here

Much of the economic landscape is still based on a factory approach to producing goods and services. It’s tempting to think this has been around forever, but it’s really not that old. Seth Godin articulates the concept of the factory culture well in his book Linchpin.

The factory approach began in Great Britain in the 18th century and ultimately spread to the rest of western civilization via the Industrial Revolution.

Though most of us don’t work along side steam engines and coal cars, we’re still driven by the forces of the Industrial Revolution, which effectively mechanized the western labor force. Sky scrapers, in many cases, are simply modern factories. Workers are expected to come in at specific times, leave at specific times, and generate constant “product” while their butts are in a seat.

Time is no longer money

The problem with the factory worker mindset today is that the “goods” we produce are far less tangible than textiles. Can you describe what you do in five words or less? No, not your job title. What do you do?

Fifty years ago, it would have been “I mine coal” or “I assemble cars.” Today it’s “I analyze marketing strategies for…” [BUZZZ]. Sorry, five word max.

Because of this modern abstraction, most knowledge workers find themselves at odds with their factory work structure. Any given 20 percent of a knowledge worker’s day is not always equal to another.

In other words, productivity time is not nearly as linear as it was in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. You can’t simply say that two hours equals ten widgets anymore. In today’s work environment, two hours could be spent

  • on a conference call that ends with friendly goodbyes but no definitive course of action,
  • mindlessly answering emails that each generate five more,
  • drafting a viral idea that transforms a company from the ground up, or
  • carrying out an infinite number of other intangible events triggered by ever changing dynamics of information, priorities, and inspiration.

Right now, do you even know what you’re about to do for the next two hours?

“Money” is just not proportional to time anymore. Time is still required of course, but it’s merely an ingredient for something more important – something that is money: creativity.

From mining ore to mining ideas

Being an effective modern worker means being creative. And to be brutally honest, the only way to be creative is to be an expressive individual. Machine cogs are not creative. They fit together with other machine parts, serve their specific purpose while in use, and then get replaced as needed.

This system works great as long as cogs are in high demand – like they were for much of the last hundred years. But times have changed.

It’s no surprise that the younger members of Gen X and probably all members of Gen Y have become disillusioned with the factory structure. They’ve endured countless stories of their parents’ and grandparents’ frustrations with their companies in the latter part of the 20th century – a time when company loyalty died.

Cogs just aren’t needed so much anymore because we’re on the tail end of the Industrial Revolution era in human history.

A time for idea whores

As I said above, time is not money. Today, time is far more valuable than money and certainly more scarce.

In this new era, people create value not by showing up and falling in line but by using their time to make new ideas. Ideas have always been the driving force behind innovation and human progress.

People have always had ideas, but in modern times, ideas are a little more special. Today, ideas can mate with each other at astonishing rates.

In the words of Matt Ridley, progress occurs when ideas have sex. Today, knowledge promiscuity is at levels never seen before. As such, the curve of progress has gone from a gentle upward slope to a nearly vertical line.

One hundred years ago, successful companies were those in which workers took and consistently executed uniform instructions just like the worker next to them and the worker two down from them. Successful modern companies, on the other hand, are idea brothels.

Look at Google and Apple, and tell me that ideas don’t create wealth. Creativity only works for software and web companies, you say? That, my friend, is a dangerously old fashioned idea. Creativity is universal in its ability to drive prosperity.

So is 20 percent time worth it?

I don’t think it matters so much how much time a company gives its employees for creative endeavors. It’s more important just to foster a culture that embraces creativity.

Companies that suppress creativity will stifle some of their greatest assets and eventually fall behind competitors who allow this new vein of capital to bubble to the surface of the enterprise.

Along with embracing creativity, I think companies should also realize that not all time is equal, as I said above. Powerful ideas can come out in really short bursts. I’ve had some of my best ones in the span of only a few minutes.

I’ve spent much of my career in a corporate “factory” environment. Fortunately, however, I’ve had the freedom to take my own path to solving problems.

Despite working in a fairly rigid corporate environment, the majority of my paid successes were based on times I walked a different path or created a priority of my own, then acted on it. In other words, the company benefited from me being an individual who took creative time on the clock.

Chris Trimble is right that ideas have to be put to work to realize value. But ideas can’t be put to work if they’re never created. And ideas can’t be created without creative time – whether that time is created by individuals on their own or given to them by an employer.

Keep mining, but lose the hard hat

Perhaps companies should look at creative ideas just like any other natural resource. They’re rarely useful in their raw state. They require molding, purification, and especially combination with other resources to fully realize value.

Just like when you mine ore, there is a lot of crap that gets thrown out. This is a “cost” of doing business, but remember that cost is falling fast in the context of ideas. The cost of idea failure is approaching zero at an incremental level.

And remember that math is on your side the more ideas you create. Even if only 3% of ideas are successful, the number of successful ideas you generate always goes up the more raw idea ore you mine.

Yes, the number of failures rises too. But successful people and companies are rarely remembered for the number of times they tripped on their journey to success. Ask any one-hit wonder. The roar from a grand slam can echo for generations, so swing hard and swing often.