Google’s 20% Project led to many of the top products we use today. However, it was “brutal” for employees.
Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, shares details about the “brutal” review process employees went through when pitching new products.
Schmidt was asked about his outlook on forecasting futures during a Q&A session at the Collision conference Toronto. He also answered questions about whether he uses a top-up or bottom-up approach.
Collision is a conference for investors and startups, so all questions were within this realm.
Schmidt was asked one question and responded with some interesting facts about Google and the process employees underwent to realize their ideas.
Google’s 20% Project was a popular employee benefit that offered time for side projects. These projects were later turned into top products such as AdSense, Gmail, and Google News.
Schmidt shared his management approach for the 20% Project and how it differs from what he described while at Google.
Schmidt Google’s 20% Project
Schmidt answered the question on forecasting by talking about the approach he took with Larry Page and Sergey Brin during his time at Google.
Schmidt publicly stated that Google used a bottom-up approach to manage the 20% project. It was a team effort to decide the next steps for new product ideas.
However, Schmidt stated at Collision that company leaders’ involvement was more remarkable than previously believed.
The team did not make the decision and allowed projects to move on to the next level. Management was involved in the “brutal” review of the decision.
“When I ran Google, I would always explain the process. It was bottom-up. There was 20% of the time for teams to assemble, and individuals could follow their passion. These were the most talented people.
I wouldn’t tell you the whole story. The rest is that Larry [Page], Sergey (Brin], and I would review these items. These reviews were brutal.
Are these ideas good enough? Can we finance them?
Do they work?
Do they have the potential to scale?
Are they legal?
It would help if you had both tops and bottoms to build a systemic innovation culture, which I believe we are talking about.
Schmidt discusses the advantages of both bottom-up and top-down decision-making. He says both are necessary to succeed in the next 10-20 years.
“The bottoms-up is where creativity comes from, and the top-down organizes and systematizes decision-making. If you do both, you will be successful in the next 10-20 years.
Do a little bit. It’s okay. Significant companies can invent something, then systematize and scale it.
20% Project Employee Criticism
Schmidt’s Collision statement is consistent with past statements made by Google employees about the project.
A Google employee created a Quora thread in 2010 that claimed the project was ineffective due to the multiple approval levels required to launch any scheme.
Launching anything requires a lot of overhead. For even the most miniature launches, many approvals are necessary (both technical and product). You will need to make your service available in multiple data centers, as Google requires frequent planned maintenance. While many tools can help, you will need to do the legwork.
Learn More about Google’s 20% Project
Google’s 20% Project existed before the company went public in 2004 but was abandoned in 2013.
An ex-Google employee argued that he was responsible for the end of the 20% policy. He cited management’s obsession with productivity and efficiency as the reason. This is in line with Schmidt’s comments at Collision.
Google’s original 20% project time concept was revived in 2016 with the 120 incubators. Although it was the birthplace of over 50 projects, none achieved the same success level as AdSense and Gmail.
Google reorganized Area 120 in late 2021 under a new division called Google Labs. This division houses Google’s AR &VR initiatives.