Friday, August 8, 2008

How about Googling up?

When I was laboring in the trenches of Silicon Valley, one of things I admired about Google (who was a next door neighbor for a while) was that they gave their people one day off a week to work on a project of their choosing. And not just some project they had chosen from a list drafted by the Google leadership. Just the opposite. They were allowed to work on any project that they dreamed up that rocked their boat. Any idea that entered their little heads that they thought might be cool to try to bring to fruition. The projects, of course, had to be something to that might be useful to Google. Employees couldn't go off and build macrame birdhouses or 12-layer wedding cakes. But as long as it was something that might one day be useful to Google, it was fair game.

The policy was based on the idea that letting smart people work on stuff that they dreamed up and were passionate about was much more likely to produce useful inventions than a top-down process where the muckety-mucks, or even a committee, decided "what we should build next." People working on their own projects get to say to themselves, "Hey, what tool would I like to have?" And then they get to figure out how to make it happen. And since they're invested in, or at least inspired by, the project, they're much more likely to figure out a way to make it work.

The reason why the Google 20 percent policy works is that, in the world of knowledge or creative work, not all hours are created equal. On an assembly line, one man-hour essentially equals another man-hour. At the end of 40 man-hours of work, you have a number of widgets equal to 40 x the standard rate of widgets-created-by-a-person-in-an-hour. Knowledge work isn't like that. Creative work isn't like that. The output from one hour of an indifferent, or demotivated, employee's time does not equal the output from one hour of a motivated employee's time. You know this. Think how much more you get done when you're jazzed about a project, and how much more excellent the outcome is, than when you're indifferent about it.

So what does this have to do with newspapers? I previously wrote about how, if I were a newspaper publisher today, I'd organize 100 newspapers in a massive R&D project. This is a related idea. If I were a newspaper editor today, I'd seriously consider giving my staff one day a week to work on any idea they wanted as long as its ultimate goal was: Find ways to attract and retain readers. (And it goes without saying, of course, that I'm talking about attracting and retaining readers online. Print is on its way out. It's just a matter of time.)

I can picture, of course, an army of newspaper editors telling me I'm friggin' crazy if I think they're going to give their people one day a week to work on some project of their own, when the paper is already short-staffed due to layoffs and the ever-voracious Web. But here's my response. And I say it, really, with the greatest respect and compassion for the position newspaper editors are in: The Titanic is going down. You can either use your staff to maintain the ship, or you can use them to build a lifeboat. In scenario A, it's going to go down and take most of your people with it. In scenario B, there's a fighting chance that some will survive and that a more seaworthy vessel will have been built. Newspaper reporters are smart, creative people. Given the chance, I imagine they will come up with some pretty neat ways of presenting stories online or with some pretty cool tools that will draw in more readers than the standard slap-up-our-print-stories-onto-the-Web approach that most newspapers are taking today.

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