Wednesday, March 14, 2012

When 20% becomes half-assed

A former development director at Google decided to return to Microsoft, and posted the reasons why in a blog post that has received a ton of attention. For me, the most meaningful section comes towards the close, when he talks about the consequences when Larry Page decided that Google's primary mission is to catch up with Facebook in social:
Suddenly, 20% meant half-assed. Google Labs was shut down. App Engine fees were raised. APIs that had been free for years were deprecated or provided for a fee. As the trappings of entrepreneurship were dismantled, derisive talk of the “old Google” and its feeble attempts at competing with Facebook surfaced to justify a “new Google” that promised “more wood behind fewer arrows.”
This is very discouraging news for anyone who's committed to promoting innovation within their workplace; for years, Google's 20% time has been the gold standard for allowing employees to innovate officially (rather than when no one is watching), and the argument has been that if a company as successful as Google provides room in which employees can tinker and experiment, then we should do that too, right? If Google ends up scrapping the 20% time, that could have repercussions throughout the business landscape, as bean-counting managers use it as justification for shutting down the more speculative endeavors of their own employees.

Unfortunately it's a fact of life that innovation and unconventional thinking have a very hard time surviving the bean-counting. The real test of a company's commitment to innovation comes when times are tough and competitors appear to be winning: will you stay the course and continue to invest in your employees, or will 20% time and bottom-up thinking be like free massages and Bring Your Dog To Work Day, eliminated in the interest of pursuing greater discipline?

In Google's case, I wonder if Larry Page is still smarting from Eric Schmidt's crack that he was brought on as CEO at Google to provide "adult supervision?" Is he pursuing focus and discipline at Google to prove that he's all grown up now? If so, it may come at the expense of his company.