20% Project: History
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Subjects: Management

The 20% Project is an initiative where company employees are allocated twenty-percent of their paid work time to pursue personal projects. The objective of the program is to inspire innovation in participating employees and ultimately increase company potential. The 20% Project was influenced by a comparable program, launched in 1948, by manufacturing multinational 3M which required employees to have 15% time: to dedicate up to 15 percent of their paid hours to a personal interest. Technology company Google is credited for popularising the 20% concept, with many of their current services being products of employee pet projects. Some schools have also utilized the principles of the 20% Project to foster creativity and boost productivity.

  • technology
  • company employees
  • paid work

1. History

1.1. 3M and 15% Time

The 15% project, an initiative established by corporation 3M. At the time of this program's implementation, the United States’ work force was composed of highly inflexible employment opportunities in rigid business structures.[1][2] After WWII ended, 3M developed an ethos: Innovate or die, which provided enterprise for the company and inspired the launch of this program. This original project has widely successful outcomes, resulting in scientists developing and manufacturing products that remain utilized internationally, even decades later.

1.2. Google Implementation

Since before its IPO in 2004[3] the founders of Google have encouraged the 20% project system. Compared to its predecessor, a five-percent increase in the time dedicated to projects allows for further positive growth in the company's levels. Over the last twenty years, this project enabled the creation of key Google services such as Gmail.[4]

As recognition of the clear benefits of retaining such a scheme grew, schools have replicated this system for their students in the classroom environment. The production of such creatively stimulated, ungraded work allows for peers to experiment with ideas without fear of assessment and increases their involvement in their general studies.[5] Further, other small businesses are now using this system in their day-to-day functions, including software company Atlassian, as a safeguard to counter damp growth rates and a general lack of innovation.

In 2013, Google discontinued 20 percent time.[6]

The 20% Project is responsible for the development of many Google services. Founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page advised that workers “spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google”.[7] Google's email service ‘Gmail’ was created by the developer Paul Buchheit on his 20% time. In his project "Caribou", Buchheit used his knowledge from university software experience to create the service. The freedom to use his time in such a way allowed him to ultimately develop a fundamental Google service. Buchheit's colleague, Susan Wojcicki, utilised her time to create their product AdSense. Finally, developer Krishna Bharat created Google News as an individual pursuit and hobby.

1.3. Other Companies

Australian enterprise company Atlassian has been using the 20% project since 2008.[8] Co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes stated that “innovation slows as the company grows”.[9] And as such the scheme was introduced to re-inspire innovation. The induction of the system was a six-month trial, granting $1 million to engineers and allowing them to work on private projects based on personal interests.[10] Part of this 20% time is their annual "Ship It’"day, where employees are challenged with a task to create any product and then ship this item within 24 hours.[11] Workers created products which ranged from refined beer to ‘Jira’ software updates. 

American project management software company TargetProcess adopted the 20% project for their small company. The company was composed of 110 members when the initiative was introduced. Company founder Michael Dubakov identified a lack of innovation from his employees, with their daily routines occupied with monotonous work. Dubakov was inspired by the output derived from 20% projects in Google and 3M but was unsure about the limit on employee involvement. Despite driving the project at Google, only certain employees were granted this time – meaning most workers could not use this opportunity for innovation. Dubakov decided to allow all employees to pursue individual projects, to reduce boredom and inspire innovation. Initially the company introduced “Orange Fridays” in 2013, an allocated 4 hours of each Friday afternoon to attend workshops, learn about and develop new technology. From this, the company saw a rise in investment opportunities and company growth.[9] The company developed a culture to innovate, with no pressure applied to employees moving from their regular schedule to innovate and learn.

In 2016, TargetProcess introduced the Open Allocation Experiment. This initiative was an extension of “Orange Fridays” and was applied to a majority of employees. The goal was to provide a more comprehensible user experience and amend issues with the TargetProcess product. Involved members were granted the opportunity to manage their schedule and individually pursue new product design. This experiment highlighted positive growth in the company, observed from a 10-month review.[12] Dubakov implemented deadlines, ensuring each individual met their personal goals. As a result, members reported to have felt an increase in personal motivation. The main company detriment that arose from this experiment was decreased company unity. With each employee pursuing individual projects a lack of management led to the company embodying the different visions from all employees, affecting company alignment. This experiment was ceased after the founder believed the company was unprepared for this shift in work dynamic.[13] TargetProcess would focus on backlog creation, with training programs for product development operating in conjunction. Self-organisation was a key concern for their 20% project as not all employees could manage their projects whilst reaching regular work deadlines. Another issue upheld in this experiment was the reward scheme, granted when an individual initiated a new product or scheme. This undermined the work of those employees not involved in the experiment and led to an unbalance in motivation.

2. Notable Projects

2.1. Gmail

From the 20% Project, Google produced forefront services that drive the company today. One outcome of this project is Gmail, Google's email service. Developer Paul Buchheit created this service under the project title ‘Caribou’. This service was developed without the awareness of other employees and was publicised several years later. By 2006, this service was available on computers and mobile devices. After 8 years of activity, Gmail had 425 million users. In May 2014, Gmail set the record as the first Android application to reach one billion installations on the Google Play store.

2.2. AdSense

The 20% Project aided in the development of AdSense, a program where publishers can produce media advertisements for a targeted audience. This service allows for website publishers to generate revenue on a per-click basis. This service was publicly released on June 18, 2003. This service was envisioned by Gmail's founder Paul Buchheit, who wanted appropriate ads to run throughout the Gmail service, but the project was pursued by Susan Wojcicki, who curated a team of developers who created the platform in their dedicated 20% time. After two years of its inception, the service was generating 15 percent of the company's revenue. The service can now offer ads in the form of simple text, flash video or rich media.

2.3. Google News

The news aggregator Google News is another result of the 20% Project. This service was publicized in January 2006, but the beta was introduced in September 2002. The founder of this service was Krishna Bharat, who developed this software in his dedicated project time. The service sources from 20,000 different publishers, providing articles in 28 languages. Now, the service has many new features, including Google News Alerts, which emails “alerts” on chosen keyword topics.

2.4. Atlassian

Another company that implemented the system is Atlassian. After six months of the project initiating, the company saw major improvements to Jira, Bamboo and Confluence. The Bamboo team introduced Stash 1.0 in May throughout the dedicated project time.[9] Throughout two designated ‘Innovation Week’ workshops, the company shipped 12 features. Another 20% Project allocation is ‘Ship It’ day, that allows customers to pursue any project. Employees used this time to refine the Jira service desk and improving the Jira software for loading screens.

2.5. TargetProcess

TargetProcess implemented 20% Project initiatives such as the Open Allocation Experiment and Orange Fridays to inspire innovation from employees. Since the implementation of the project, investment opportunities have risen.[14] The company grew over 10% between 2008 and 2016 during the project's operation. Founder, Michael Dubakov, observed increased enthusiasm from employees.

3. Benefits and Detriments

The 20% Project is designed to let employees experiment without the pressure of company decline or the threat of unemployment. For companies that thrive from the conception of services and products, innovative and entrepreneurial thought is vital to success.[15]

However, for an operating business, productivity can be negatively affected by the 20% Project. The loss of time previously spent on major company-aligned projects can negatively affect a company's overall performance.[16]

The allocation of this project time is not consistent. Former Google employee and Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer once stated “I’ve got to tell you the dirty little secret of Google's 20% time. It's really 120% time.”[7]

Chris Mims mentioned that the 20% Project was “as good as dead”.[17] This is a concern as it suggests that this project is destructive over long-term periods. In Google executive Laszlo Bock's book, Work Rules!, he mentions that the concept has “waxed and waned.” He states that workers in fact dedicate 10% of their time on personal projects, increasing focus time after the idea begins to “demonstrate impact.” He mentions that “the idea of 20 per cent time is more important than the reality of it.” Workers should always be driven towards individual innovation, yet it should operate “somewhat outside the lines of formal management.”

Atlassian Co-Founder Mike Cannon-Brookes implemented the 20% Project as a test to see if it produced any notable improvements or detriments to the company's output. They funded a six-month trial with one million Australian dollars. During this process, workers tackled inherent structural difficulties within the scheme. An employee mentioned that it was difficult to balance this 20% time “amongst all the pressures to deliver new features and bug fixes.”;[10] the program introduced more deadlines for their employees. As a result, the company found that this 20% Project in fact became 1.1% of their working time.[10] Another issue faced was the difficulty in the organisation and team-work involved in the projects. As employees would organise groups to create new software, they would struggle to work with employees who had other commitments and alternate time schedules.[12] The company blogs have included fewer references to the 20% Project over the last decade with references that this scheme loses effect in long-term practices.[7] The company's ‘Ship It’ day still highlights the prosperity of time dedicated to employee-based innovation.[11]

Dubakov reported that the 20% Project proved beneficial for the company. The benefit of this separated time is that each member feels less pressure to complete tasks, being able to advance their skill set and review previous work. This time was not only used for new projects but to educate about content relating to the job.[14] This allocation of time allowed for individuals to complete single tasks, improving time delivery but negatively affecting synergy. The company reflected an emergent vision as a result of collective individual projects.

The content is sourced from: https://handwiki.org/wiki/Social:20%25_Project


  1. Goetz, Kaomi (2011-02-01). "How 3M Gave Everyone Days Off and Created an Innovation Dynamo" (in en-US). https://www.fastcompany.com/1663137/how-3m-gave-everyone-days-off-and-created-an-innovation-dynamo. 
  2. Kretkowski, Paul D.. "The 15 Percent Solution". Wired. https://www.wired.com/1998/01/the-15-percent-solution/. 
  3. ""An Owner's Manual" for Google's Shareholders". https://abc.xyz/investor/founders-letters/2004-ipo-letter/. 
  4. D'Onfro, Jillian (2015-04-18). "The truth about Google's famous '20% time' policy" (in en). https://www.businessinsider.com.au/google-20-percent-time-policy-2015-4. 
  5. "The Tech Classroom - What is the 20% Project in Education?" (in en-US). https://sites.google.com/site/pettystechclassroom/20-project/what-is-the-20-project-in-education. 
  6. Nisen, Max (2013-08-16). "Google's Obsession With Efficiency Has Killed Its Most Famous Perk" (in en). https://www.businessinsider.com/google-kills-20-time-2013-8. 
  7. D'Onfro, Jillian (2015-04-18). "The truth about Google's famous '20% time' policy" (in en). https://www.businessinsider.com.au/google-20-percent-time-policy-2015-4. 
  8. "Atlassian's 20% Time Experiment" (in en-US). 2008-03-10. https://www.atlassian.com/blog/archives/20_time_experiment. 
  9. "Atlassian's 20% Time Experiment" (in en-US). 2008-03-10. https://www.atlassian.com/blog/archives/20_time_experiment. 
  10. "Atlassian's 20% Time: A Year in Review" (in en-US). 2009-02-19. https://www.atlassian.com/blog/archives/atlassians_20_time_a_year_in_review. 
  11. Atlassian. "ShipIt Days" (in en). https://www.atlassian.com/company/shipit. 
  12. "Innovation Week – 20% time in a box" (in en-US). 2012-09-10. https://www.atlassian.com/blog/archives/innovation-week-20-time-in-a-box. 
  13. Taucraft (2017-05-03). "Open Allocation Experiment" (in en). https://www.targetprocess.com/blog/open-allocation-experiment/. 
  14. "This Small Company Is Making '20% Time' Work" (in en-US). 2017-05-18. https://www.tlnt.com/this-small-company-is-making-20-time-work/. 
  15. "The Tech Classroom - What is the 20% Project in Education?" (in en-US). https://sites.google.com/site/pettystechclassroom/20-project/what-is-the-20-project-in-education. 
  16. Ross, Alastair (2015-06-03). "Why did Google abandon 20% time for innovation?" (in en-gb). https://www.hrzone.com/lead/culture/why-did-google-abandon-20-time-for-innovation. 
  17. "Google's "20% time," which brought you Gmail and AdSense, is now as good as dead". https://qz.com/115831/googles-20-time-which-brought-you-gmail-and-adsense-is-now-as-good-as-dead/. 
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