Thursday, April 3, 2008

No Silver Bullets

Living in "Entrepreneurial itch land" it is very easy to forget this very important principle of software. It's a constant search for new innovative ideas to revolutionize, not necessarily the world, but some part of people's lives. It's really a never ending search simply because every aspect of life can be innovated and that is what keeps me up at night.

So enough of the 'piphy', back down to the practical. Some time ago I decided that my current company could be something amazing if it implemented some measure of 'dabble time'. Recently known as Google's 20%. I have since changed my mind after reading some blogs from others with some truly insightful opinions.

First let me get this out of the way, Google was not the first to do anything like this. Check out 3M and W.L. Gore which have been doing this stuff for decades.

These are the reasons I came up with for why 20% time would solve my companies problems as well as some of the counter points I knew the idea would encounter:
  • Directly fosters innovation
    • The Good: Builds out the product portfolio. Increases existing product quality.
    • The Bad: Your spending 20% more on payroll than you should. You're spending less effort on the core product.
  • Directly increases employee satisfaction
    • The Up: Increases employee retention, Increases quality of new employees, Increases employee productivity
    • The Down: Is there a down side to happier employees?
  • Gets employees interested in each other's work
    • ++: Builds employee communication, Build projects understanding (synergy?)
    • --: Employees spend more time chit chatting and brainstorming than actually working. Employees focus more on new products than the core product.
To sum up, 20% time increases strategic diversity while increasing employee satisfaction and the downside is that you're distracting attention from the core product. This is great for larger businesses (100+ employees), but extremely bad for the tiny businesses (<30).

One extremely crucial thing that makes 20% work so well is that it is peer review process. When there are 30 people in a company you probably still know everyone and have various opinions about their work etc... This makes it possible for one charismatic person to single handedly change the focus of the company. This isn't 20% time, you've simply found a better goal for the company. Splitting mind share at the early stages of a company simply hurts your chances of actually succeeding. You simply can't afford any dead weight.

The idea behind 20% time is not to replace the core product, but to either enhance it or compliment it with another product. This means you should probably have enough clients to actually give a damn about what new and interesting things you're doing, otherwise you fall into the trap of creating solutions in search of a problem. Nothing hurts employee morale more than having dead weight at a company. It is definitely not good for client relations as competitive product X doesn't come with a price 20% time price tag.

So when is the time to start pulling the 20%? The short answer is, when it makes sense (in a business way). When you can start losing business to start-ups, when there are obvious products that can compliment yours, when you get big enough to have to worry about strategic diversity, and most importantly when employees spend more time complaining about a product than building one.

So why is 20% time not a good idea for my company? We certainly need innovation, and we most certainly need to increase employee retention, almost every company does. But we simply don't have enough employees, we have stretched our resources so thin that we are failing to keep up with our existing products. Our solution doesn't lie in new products, it's in cutting out the old.

I'll save that rant for another day. In the mean time, a few links on 20% time:

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