Sunday, September 16, 2012

20 percent time and creativity - the core

You've probably heard about Google's 20 percent time.  Employees can dedicate a fifth of their working time to their own projects.  Often it's brought up as something radical, a sign of how left of field Google is.  Or as an indulgence they afford their high quality staff.  But it's not radical enough.

In a creative, fast-moving industry like online software, it's just good business sense.  It is recognition of the simple, obvious fact that as a company or a manager, you can't know in advance what the best use of your employees time will be, or where tomorrow's business will be.  Employees at least know their own ideas and experiences better than anyone else, and how these might seed tomorrow's products.

This minority flexible time makes sense in a paradigm where the default is 100 percent allocation.  Where, in other words, employees' work is defined by an encompassing boundary that outlines the role they play in the company.  This is the model of a 'role' implicit in typical org charts and pyramid organisational structures.

Did you know complex projects consistently go over budget and over time?  Professional project managers, IT companies,  infrastructure specialists - irrespective of experience and expertise, complex projects have an average overrun of 40%.  Next time you hear of an embarrassing public sector project failure, don't dis government so quickly - exactly the same average overrun applies in the private sector as well (and don't forget, most large public sector projects are undertaken by private companies anyway).  Apparently, exactly the same figure applies to PhD studies (average 4.2 years).  This is not a coincidence.  It is the simple result of trying to apply a 'boundary' philosophy to projects that are not predictable enough to be bounded.

We commit the same sin in the world of work when we expect to be able to predetermine most of a staff members' time allocation or output.

Have you picked up where I'm going with this yet?

If your essential role is creative or unpredictable, you should be working on 20 percent time.  Or also, if you're volunteering and therefore your motivation is the key asset expended in your involvement.

But your 20 percent time shouldn't be like Google's.  In this situation, the encompassing paradigm is inappropriate - a core+network philosophy is better.  You should be working to 80 percent self-directed as standard, with predefined accountability of only the core 20 percent of your effort.

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