The 20% Doctrine: How Tinkering, Goofing Off, and Breaking the Rules at Work Drive Success in Business


An inspiring exploration of how unorthodox business practices and the freedom to experiment can fuel innovation

We're at a crossroads. Many iconic American companies have been bailed out or gone bankrupt; others are struggling to survive as digitization and globalization remake their industries. At the same time, the tectonic forces disrupting U.S. corporations—ubiquitous bandwidth and computing power, cheap manufacturing and distribution—have enabled large organizations to ...

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The 20% Doctrine

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An inspiring exploration of how unorthodox business practices and the freedom to experiment can fuel innovation

We're at a crossroads. Many iconic American companies have been bailed out or gone bankrupt; others are struggling to survive as digitization and globalization remake their industries. At the same time, the tectonic forces disrupting U.S. corporations—ubiquitous bandwidth and computing power, cheap manufacturing and distribution—have enabled large organizations to foster new innovations and products through experiments that are at once more aggressive and less risky than they would have been twenty years ago. At companies such as Google, employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their work time on projects they're personally interested in. Almost half of Google's new product launches have originated from this policy, including Gmail and AdSense. Now other companies have adopted the concept, providing them a path to innovation and profits at a time of peril and uncertainty and offering employees creative freedom when many are feeling restless.

The 20% Doctrine is about goofing off at work, and how that goofing off can drive innovation and profit. Here Ryan Tate examines the origins and implementation of 20% time at Google, then looks at how other organizations such as Flickr, the Huffington Post, and even a school in the Bronx have adapted or reinvented the same overall concept, intentionally and serendipitously. Along the way, he distills a series of common themes and lessons that can help workers initiate successful 20% style projects within their own organizations. Only through a new devotion to the unhinged and the ad hoc can American businesses resume a steady pace of development and profitability.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The 20% doctrine, in which employees are given a fifth of their work time to focus on projects they're personally interested in, is hardly new—3M has been using a version of it for years—but the concept took off as more companies took note of its potential. tech gossip blogger Tate shows how companies have employed the concept with varying degrees of success. When Google employees were given free reign, they came up with Gmail and AdSense (the pay-per-click advertising program that generates around billion a year), as well as Google Reader, a high-profile failure-to-launch. Tate doesn't tout companies or executives. Rather, he champions the process, letting his case studies demonstrates how key tenets—start looking for problems internally, move quickly, allow for subsequent iterations—are just as important to success as the ideas themselves. He also shows how the concept can work externally, recounting how The Huffington Post took the notion and spun it on its head by asking readers to cover the 2008 election via its Off the Bus citizen journalism project. Tate's enthusiastic but objective study gathers momentum as the book progresses; each chapter builds on the previous one, and he's quick to point out the practicality of the process. Whether readers are in the corner office or the boiler room, they'll likely find Tate's opus to be inspiring and informative. (Apr.)
Craig Newmark
“In any organization a lot of the rank-and-file are ready to start efforts which will contribute to their community, maybe building the bottom line. The 20 % Doctrine shows how organizations have made that work in real life, and how you might make that happen where you work.”
Chris Anderson
“The most innovative companies in America are those that are willing to let employees explore their own pet projects on company time. The 20% Doctrine is a smart, well-written look at this new path to innovation, full of examples that are engaging, thought provoking, and intriguingly diverse.”
Kirkus Reviews technology gossip blogger Tate debuts with an account of how companies are innovating by freeing workers to dream up their own side projects. In six case studies, the author shows how Google's "20 percent time" policy--which encourages Google engineers to take 20 percent of their time to work on ideas that interest them personally, an approach that has led to the creation of both Gmail to Google News--has inspired other corporations to find ways to empower employees to pursue their passions. The policy is now "harvesting innovation from the margins" at many tech and other companies. Side projects have common tenets: They provide creative freedom, connect with people's passions, generate crude early versions, leverage existing products, generate improvements rapidly to create in-house buzz, continually "sell" the project in the hope of becoming a full-blown company initiative and embrace the help of people outside the organization. Tate's case studies detail the evolution of side projects and lessons learned at selected companies, including Google, where an engineer's effort to create Gmail proceeded in incremental advances, allowing him to show colleagues he was incorporating their ideas, getting feedback on flaws and generating discussion on how to grow the product; Ludicorp, a Web startup with limited resources, which reinvented itself with a side project that produced the leading photo website Flickr; and Yahoo, whose Hack Days ("like 20 percent time on crack") allow participants to create initial designs and collect feedback. Other chapters describe innovations by zealous individuals in non-tech settings, including the creation of the Bronx Academy of Letters, an unusual high school based on high expectations in an impoverished South Bronx neighborhood; the Huffington Post's "Off the Bus" project, which galvanized thousands of volunteer citizen journalists to offer a different kind of coverage of a presidential election; and top chef Thomas Keller's side project in nostalgia that led to the launch of a successful new restaurant, Ad Hoc. Useful and inspiring advice for tinkerers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062003232
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/17/2012
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,499,224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Ryan Tate is the technology gossip blogger for and a veteran business journalist whose posts are read 2.5 million times by 700,000 people per month. He began his career writing for Upside, the first magazine to focus on the intersection of business and technology. He then went on to write and report for Business 2.0 magazine, the Contra Costa Times, and the San Francisco Business Times. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two cats.

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Table of Contents

Foreword Chad Dickerson vii

Introduction 1

1 Scratching Your Own Itch 15

2 20 Percent on the Cheap 41

3 The Rise of Hack Day 57

4 A Side Project School Rises in the Bronx 87

5 The Huffington Post Brings 20 Percent to the Masses 103

6 How a Top Chef Started Over 141

Conclusion 157

Bibliography 173

Index 184

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