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I break Startups down into their component parts and show you how to build for success.  

20% time

In a board meeting recently, the topic of innovation was front and centre.

As a Strategic Advisor to an incredibly innovative medical device company, it’s primarily my responsibility to help turn lab-bound research that’s at the absolute cutting edge of the technology in its space into a very considered, well-planned, and commercially-viable business.

I don’t even vaguely understand the technology behind the devices that the founders are building and I don’t need to. There are universal truths and applications to Strategy that transcend industry segments (mainly, that you need to spend more time with your customers, be more quantitative in your goal setting, and really focus on how to achieve those goals through incremental, everyday steps) and me not having read the patent applications is irrelevant to the work that I do to help bring clarity of action.

Day-to-day, what I actually need to focus on is how to help turn those research-driven, inquisitive, inventive minds into customer-centric, tactical machines of concentrated action if we’re going to be able to raise the next batch of funding needed for regulatory approval.

But I can’t be 100% successful. It can’t all be planned. Innovation comes from mental freedom, from the space to ask “ok, but what if…?”. My role as a strategist is not to stamp this out, but to find space for it to flourish.

Enter: 20% time.

20% time

What is 20% time?

In 2004’s pre-IPO letter to prospective investors, Google Co-Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote:

“We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner. For example, AdSense for content and Google News were both prototyped in “20% time.” Most risky projects fizzle, often teaching us something. Others succeed and become attractive businesses.”

Regardless of whether or not Alphabet still practises this philosophy twenty years on, if you’re balancing the tightrope between innovation and commercialisation, could it benefit you to spend 20% of your time (or 1 day a week) ignoring the commercialisation part entirely?

I think it could.

20% time

Why is 20% time useful?

We are, none of us, perfect machines of output. We can set all the goals we want and have the best of intentions to achieve them, but we do not have an infinite capacity to perform. We need rest, we need breaks, we experience burnout and stress and we can quickly find that too much of anything is toxic.

Never is this more true than at the front line of innovation. There are huge upsides to entrepreneurship, yes, but there are also massive downsides. For every moment that you feel success (a new customer secured, a good review, a positive message from an investor) there are ten moments of self-doubt and anxiety and fear.

I go through all these things myself. Daily. A good friend of mine from business school (Co-Founder of the incredible Derwent & Dunne coffee) and I have a bi-weekly call on a Monday afternoon that’s labelled in the diary as ‘Emotional Breakdown’ because, at any one time, we’re both having about 15 emotional breakdowns building our businesses.

If you’re feeling this way, knowing that you have a whole day (whether one single day or chunks of time over multiple days) of time in which you can get away from the day-to-day of operationalising a massive strategy can feel like a regular holiday for your brain. Bonus point - it can make the other 80% even more effective.

Trusting and allowing your employees to spend 20% of their working time on interesting new projects, done properly, can have huge returns in terms of engagement and retention of your staff. This, in turn, has a positive impact on performance, whatever your industry.

What are the risks and downsides of 20% time?

Some Googlers have been known to refer to ‘20% time’ as ‘120% time’ - i.e. sure, you can work on outside projects, but only in your outside time.

One year during my time at Amazon, in response to many, many employees feeling overwhelmed and burned out, my department implemented a ranking system for priorities. The idea was that everyone was really clear on what absolutely had to get done so that people could feel confident putting things on the tomorrow list.

Great idea, awful execution.

The ranking of priorities was ‘medium’, ‘high’, and the horrendously-named ‘high+’. No priority could be ‘low’ because nothing was a low priority.

Unsurprisingly, this did nothing to assuage the team’s anxieties about the workload - in fact, calling some things ‘high+’ and allowing unlimited numbers of projects to be added to that classification only increased our stress levels.

To do ‘20% time’ successfully, you need to be clear that it’s accepted, that it’s ok, that it’s even expected that a team member can spend 20% of their time on innovation. This takes planning, and consideration, and an open, low-ego mindset that can be fantastically hard to find in difficult economic times.

How that plays out in practice will look different in different companies, but a good starting point is to lead from the top.

If you’re a Founder or Senior Leader and you’re thinking long-term about what’s coming next for your product, then allow the team to also think long-term about what’s coming next for the product. Allow them the time and space for the wishing, and hoping, and thinking that fosters the kinds of tiny sparks of ideas that are responsible for things like Gmail and AdSense.

20% time

To do that, you need to show them. Look at how you’re structuring your calendar. Are you always in the weeds, putting out fires? Could you delegate some of those fires to give yourself more breathing room? Can you visibly talk about what you spent your 20% time on that week and ask others how they used theirs? Can you show yourself spending even 10% of time on innovation when things are really busy?

A company’s priorities are indicated by the behaviours of its leaders.

Are you thinking enough about how to innovate today in order to plan for tomorrow? If you’re struggling to find the space to think, I can help.

Book a free discovery call below to find out more.


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