You can do a lot with 20%

Note: This article was originally published on April 5, 2014

You can do a lot with 20%. The oft quoted Pareto’s 80/20 rule postulates that 80% of the output is produced by 20% of your efforts. This along with the Parkinson law (Work expands to fill the time you allocate for it) is the guiding principle behind almost all of the productivity hacks practices and advocated by Tim Ferris. I subscribe to the worldview that it is indeed so. It’s a different discussion altogether whether this theory (and the Parkinson theory) is valid and that can probably be taken up in a later post. But for the purposes of this article, let’s just assume for the time being that the Pareto principle holds. So the starting assumption is: You can create 80% results with 20% of your time and effort; and 80% is a lot!

Pareto principle — 80/20

Google introduced a 20% in its work culture in a very interesting way. All Googler’s are allowed to spend 20% of their time in their personal interest projects; projects that may not even have anything with to do with the objectives of the company. This was a masterstroke in so many different levels is my take; enhanced productivity, happier Googler’s, increased motivation and exposure to a vast repository of unbridled innovation. In our recent trip to Silicon Valley as part of SVSquare, we had the opportunity to meet and interact with the person who really got most of us hooked on to social networking; the founder of Orkut Mr. Orkut himself! Orkut was a project of his that he did while he was in college. He decided to pick it up and work on it as part of his 20% at Google when he joined the company. (FYI — Gmail & Adsense are also the products of the 20% policy of Google) It was his 20% and he worked on the entire project on his own. People started using it and now it needed to have a name. Apparently, Merrissa & Larry suggested to him that since he owned the domain of his name ( already, he should just call his project Orkut and launch it right away. And that is how was born. And it changed the way we communicate with people online. You can do a lot with 20%!

With Orkut & Asha Jadeja at Googleplex during the SVSquare trip

Orkut is to social networking, what Captain Gopinath & Air Deccan was to domestic air travel in India. From the perception of being very expensive and hence the privilege of the elite, students started coming home during vacations in flights. Thanks to Air Deccan students staying in hostels could spend much lesser time traveling in trains and hence more time with family during their vacations; and that too at about the cost of a train ticket! Orkut changed the way we connected and stayed in touch with people. Gopinathan had a vision of making the common man be able to fly. Air Deccan changed the way we viewed domestic air travel in India. What Orkut had was only an interest, a hobby project if you will. Different motivations but equivalent in terms of impact in our everyday lives; both changed the way we do things!

We already had a 20% in the college ecosystem as it is. I was in the college basketball team when I was in college and in my final year, I also got to represent Kerala University. Now if you are a University player (or an elected Union member) you get upto 20% relaxation in attendance requirements (and also 4% marks). In my final year, I was both an elected College Union official and a University player. I would have loved to get 20% each for both resulting in a total of 40%, but the system allowed you to have only a maximum of 20%

There is another 20% that we have been championing for at Startup Village. Our request to the Government was simple; an entrepreneur, ie someone who is trying to create jobs and wealth in society, should be supported on par with someone who is pursuing sports. Nothing more but at least on par. All those efforts resulted in the Government of Kerala coming out with a Student Entrepreneurship Policy; a first for any state in the country. The policy enables college students to get 20% relaxation in attendance (duty leaves) and 4% additional marks (grace marks) if they are doing a startup with any Government of India (Department of Science & Technology) recognized incubators in the state. That’s pretty neat in itself. But lets also understand the significance of such a policy in slightly more detail.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy announced the policy in September 2011

What this means is that, if you are student, you have now been empowered with the choice of spending 20% of your time in pursuing projects that interest you. This is similar to what Google offered its employees. What that translates to me is that Kerala is now a state that has a human development policy on par with the HR policy as that of Google (the 20% rule at Google is regarded as a game changer, again a first of its kind, in how organizations viewed HR and employee productivity / engagement).

Googlers, now enabled with the 20% policy, have the ability to balance their work and their creative pursuits and still have the weekend to themselves to spend time with friends and family if they so wished. Similarly, a student in Kerala now need not be faced with the choice of pursuing academics OR attempting a startup. Enabled with the 20% policy, it’s now academics AND a startup; you now have an option and the opportunity to balance both. You spend 20% of your time on your personal project and Google pays you for that; you spend 20% of your time on your personal projects and University awards you with 20% attendance for that. It’s not a question of either this or that anymore. Its AND! The distinction is quite significant if you can truly appreciate. And that again is well aligned to the opportunity that this time and age offers.

Each and every student have the right to this 20%. In the sports format, the number of people who could claim it was limited; a basketball team can have only so many players after all. It was a zero sum game. With the 20% under the student entrepreneurship policy, no student will need to compete with his peer for his 20%. It’s not a zero sum game. On the contrary, you are better off collaborating.

Its been heartening to have various people from other parts of the country reaching out in an effort to understand more about this policy and to seek guidance on how they can go about implementing this in their state. The efforts and enthusiasm shown by the Vice Chancellor of Gujarat Technical University himself along with his enterprising colleague Hiranmay in getting such a policy implemented in the state of Gujarat was exemplary and require a special mention. I aspire of an imminent future when such an opportunity and benefit is extended to each and every student of our country!

You can do a lot with 20%. Orkut was built with 20%. Most students (including yours truly) cleared their engineering with 20%; both in terms of effort and time. Clearing 16–18 back papers along with regular papers within the span of late S7 and S8 is yet again a manifestation of the 80 / 20 rule! What will you do with your 20%? And you can do a whole freaking lot with 20%!

If you are a student in Kerala reading this, have you staked your claim to your 20%? If not, why not and what are you waiting for?