Innovation from the Bottom Up at Google

Last Updated Mar 6, 2008 8:03 PM EST

google12.jpgAs noted in this space recently, there are tools media company managers can use to encourage entrepreneurial efforts inside their departments.

You need look no further than the most successful corporate innovator on the planet -- Google -- for an idea how to accomplish this.

Google's Mountain View digs, where roughly 10,000 people (just over half of its global workforce) are employed, feels more like engineering school than a corporate headquarters. Young employees are playing pool, volleyball, video games, or just snacking at all hours of the day and night, including weekends.

But Google does a lot more than make employees' work life convenient and comfortable. One of its big incentive programs, the "20-percent time," which the company says benefits Google News, among other products, is an example.

A manager at Google told me that, while the program is great and he believes that it helps boost productivity, morale, and a spirit of innovation, it often is confused with another of the company's statistical mantras.

"(It) is often confused with the 70/20/10 strategic-mix idea," he explains, "which says that 70 percent of the company's effort ought to be spent on improving core products, 20 percent on extending them, and 10 percent on completely different stuff.

"The phrase "20 percent time" always means the individual allocation of time," he says, "whereas "70/20/10" means the whole-company allocation. Individual time can serve goals in any of those 70/20/10 categories."

He added that the company recognizes that the rule can be applied in different ways for different purposes:

"It's not always 20 percent of every week (i.e. 1 day out of 5); some folks work in finer-grained chunks (e.g. waiting for the big project's load test results) squeeze in an hour of 20 percent work), and some work in larger chunks (e.g. two weeks a quarter)."

Now, not every workforce may be as amenable to mathematical solutions as Google's, but you get the general idea.

Innovation comes from the bottom up.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.