Google is reportedly cutting off its much-vaunted “20 percent time,” a policy that allowed Googlers to work on independent projects for one day out of every week.
Once a universal right among Google employees, “20 percent time” became a manager-granted privilege starting sometime in 2012. According to Quartz, that noose has tightened still further in recent quarters, with the company’s efficiency experts structuring productivity quotas in a way that makes taking days for independent projects pretty much impossible.
Many companies kill longtime perks, of course, but “20 percent time” was notable for resulting in products that subsequently went on to earn Google a whole lot of money and prestige, most notably Gmail and Google Maps. But its elimination is also the next logical step on a road that Google’s been walking down for quite some time.
For many years, Google was notoriously unfocused as a corporation. The immense revenues from its search-and-advertising business allowed its designers and engineers to play with all sorts of concepts, many of which never reached end-users. Some of those wild and crazy ideas ended up in Google Labs, where they existed as toys for the adventurous (Mail Googles being a prime example).
Yet at a certain point, Google was forced into maturity. Before Apple CEO Steve Jobs died in October 2011, Google CEO Larry Page swung by his house to discuss strategy. “We talked a lot about focus,” Jobs later told biographer Walter Isaacson. “Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up. It’s now all over the map.” He advised the younger executive to slash “adequate” products from the Google portfolio and concentrate on making a handful great.
Page took that advice to heart. Over the next two years, his company killed Google Health, Google Reader, Knol (a Wikipedia competitor), Google Buzz (which aped Twitter), Google Notebook, and a scattering of others; Google Labs had already been shuffled off to the dustbin of dead technology in the summer of 2011.
Even as Google began consolidating its product lines, it worked on uniting its remaining Web properties into a cohesive whole built around Google+, its social networking service. As a result of those efforts, Google is no longer a search engine with a couple of side products such as email: it’s now a portal to a wide array of Web services, all of which feed into each other in key ways. And although it faces significant competition from Facebook (which competes for online-advertising dollars) and Apple (its biggest mobile-device opponent), it’s increasingly hard to argue that Google is scrappy startup of a decade ago—it’s a monolith.
And a monolith with a focus on streamlining has no need for 20 percent time; innovation within the existing product categories can be driven via other processes. But without that time devoted to individual projects, and the inevitable quirkiness that ensued, Google risks losing a part of the identity that makes it so unique.