Twenty Percent Time in a Wirearchy

In the realm of organisational design, Google has been single out for its cutting-edge policy of “20% time”, where employees take the equivalent of one day per week to devote to side projects. Whether that policy does or doesn’t exist anymore is not relevant to the question of its historical effectiveness for Google, and indeed whether any other company in such a growth phase could achieve similar success through imitating such a policy. All the evidence points to some significant wins as a result of this way of working.

I have never worked in a company that formally allocates 20% of employee time to side projects, but I have worked in a large company with an increasingly important enterprise social network. It is almost inevitable that the online world clashes with the traditional political and power structures within the organisation. Some refer to this new order as a wirearchy, although as that article points out it probably has more to do with the emergent nature of the structure than its online roots. Power influencers were, as one might expect from a technology-driven project, initially all from the IT world, but that was beginning to change as the network matured.

So why is this relevant to 20% time? One of the most successful groups within the social network was an Excel group. Some people would post the problems they were trying to solve, and others would respond. Often they were not trivial tasks, involving complex sorting algorithms or data processing. The common theme was that a community of experts formed, who would race against each other to find the most elegant solution to each problem. Problems came at any time of the day, and it would be pretty unusual for a solution to take longer than 10 minutes to arrive. Crowdsourcing at its best. To top it all off, the network had self-organised around reporting value, so solutions were marked with an appropriate hashtag, a bit like StackExchange.

Responding to Excel queries was not anyone’s day job. I’m sure nobody had this task even mentioned in their job description, but people did it. They did it voluntarily, perhaps for the kudos that attaches to being known as an expert. I would like to think that this is the next evolution of 20% time – a percentage of time to side projects that is self-regulated by employees. It would be impossible to ‘allocate’ one day a week to answering these type of requests, as they are posted whenever the sender feels like it and part of the response is its timeliness. It may not have been 20% of a full time role, but allocating 20 minutes per week generated incredible value. The only problem was that you didn’t know which 20 minutes it was going to be.

Lastly, why would someone do this? The answer is in part due to the strength of the wirearchy. People gain a reputation for being competent in a particular field of expertise. People gain connections across the organisation that they wouldn’t have otherwise formed. Those two factors translate to opportunities. While it allows people to build up a visible portfolio to facilitate a planned career move, there is also a good chance that you will be approached for a secondment, or even permanent opportunity, which may just fit in with your long term career plan.