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The Concept of “20% Talent”
At Google, the notion of “20% time” allows employees to focus on side-projects that can evolve into new passions or products at the…
At Google, the notion of “20% time” allows employees to focus on side-projects that can evolve into new passions or products at the company. Many Google products, from Gmail to Maps to AdSense, came from this concept of “20% time.” Some people quip that that the other name for “20% time” might be, “Saturday.” But joking aside, at Google there is an institutional investment allowing employees to pursue their curiosities and peripheral interests, a way of providing a check and balance to the overbearing manager who asks for a very narrow focus. “I’ll give you 100% of my 80% time,” you can reply.
The same way that Google entrusts the employee to set their own research agenda, perhaps we might also consider the notion of “20% talent.” This nudge in team composition might widen the aperture. For example, 80% of your team may be people you think you need, for example statisticians on a data science team, but perhaps 20% ought to be people who can supplement, challenge, or augment your core expectations, like a sociologist or ethicist.
One idea that has continually come up in conversations about my book, The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World, now out in Korean, Portuguese, and available in May with Penguin India, is how we balance between investing in technical literacy, and a greater study of the human condition. How can we hone an appreciation for the newest tools, while at the same time investing in our softer skills of creativity, collaboration, communication, and curiosity? At Stanford, it’s the “fuzzy” or the “techie.”
Of course the truth is, this is a false dichotomy. Sir Charles Percy Snow famously discussed this in his 1959 “Two Cultures” lecture. There need not be such a chasm between the sciences, or the study of the natural world, and the humanities, or the study of our place within it. Engineering and computer science can be highly creative, while social science can be heavily quantitative. Product development is as much about anthropological user experience research, philosophy, and psychology, as it is about wire-framing, and study of ethics can be highly rigorous, and deeply rooted in modern technology. There is not a particular path that is harder, or more relevant in our modern world. They are concurrently vital to every aspect of the modern human condition.
Insofar as how we balance ourselves, and the skills we develop as individuals, I point to Stanford Associate Vice Provost Louis Newman’s framework of conceptualizing education as a “passport,” rather than as a “plane ticket.” We need not debate the merits of one destination over another, or think about ourselves on one ballistic path or another. Arguing the merits of biology versus statistics, or computer science versus anthropology is like quibbling over the the merits of a journey to Bogota or Beijing. They’re each incredibly unique. Rather, we ought to consider how we can fill our own passport with a plurality of diverse stamps. If you’re a literature major who really dislikes math, then you ought to take a course in statistics. If you’re an engineer fearful of public speaking, you owe it to yourself to study theater arts.
Zooming out, when we think about our companies, organizations, or teams, the question most often posed to me is something akin to, “So we care about the Liberal Arts and ethics, but I also run an engineering organization. The reality is we need technical people who know how to get the job done — how do you propose we hire people who don’t know how to do the job?”
Kim Scott, former Google AdSense executive who taught at Apple University and went onto advise many startups, more recently authored a fabulous management book Radical Candor. She speaks about the need to nurture both “superstars” and “rock stars” on every team. Superstars are those constantly evolving, those who treat their job as a launch pad. They’re the high-energy innovators and disruptors who, once at some level of excellence, are ready for the next challenge. The Rock Stars are the bedrock of your organization, the contributors who once they get good at a role they want to lock into flow state. They’re looking for a stable pasture, not a runway, a space to do work.
Organizations full of Rock Stars fail to innovate. Those with too many Superstars see the wheels on the bus fly off, as everyone is too busy trying to disrupt the system, but no one is providing the operational foundation to get the basic tasks done. At startups, and at large organizations, the truth is that you need both your Rock Stars and your Superstars, and good managers can identify who’s who, helping provide both runways and pastures for both.
In considering how to blend our teams, we might consider this idea of “20% Talent.” Similar to Google’s “20% Time,” the notion might be to seek out new perspective to mix up the inputs on team composition. While an operations team might need many high-energy extroverts speaking to clients, or working to up-sell accounts, they’d benefit immensely from a couple introverted coders or statisticians to help them optimize and refine processes. And while a data science team might need predominately techies, having twenty percent talent in the social sciences or philosophy might help them better frame, or define data taxonomies. These people are trained in different methodologies, and might spot bias, or ask questions in a wildly different way. This diversity can help us translate raw data and information into actionable wisdom.
Nobel prize-winning behavioral economist has a concept for this known as the “Inside/Outside” view. The inside view, which we each have, is based on our own experiences, where we draw evidence from our own corpus of knowledge. It team composition is too uniform, inside bias can constrain the possibility set of how we approach a problem, or ask questions of bias, data, or methodology. Having only the inside view can blind us to possibility, and anchor us to our own limits. Having an outside view can help provide a new reference point, or indication of a new range of the possible.
Redpoint venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz brings this idea to life in talking about the inside bias in startups. The inside view within a startup is to think, “this time is different.” After all, if those creating the company don’t have this bias, and believe this inside view, why would they endeavor for many months and years to alter the status quo? In some ways, embracing this inside view can also have its benefits. It gives you necessary boldness or self-confidence.
But startups too require an outside view, perspective from those skeptics, investors, others who might see the world differently, or who can provide an orthogonal viewpoint. Whether we are considering an early stage venture, a large multi-national, or our own intellectual composition, we ought to take these metaphors of passports, 20% talent, and outside bias to heart.
How can we tug on our own minds, opening them in new ways? How can we expand the breath of our own intellectual nutrition, bring diversity into our mind, and onto our teams? How can we consider the outside view, when we are inherently limited and biased by inside knowledge? In many ways, this is the very notion of a non-vocationally focused Liberal Arts education. The purpose is to force breadth of study, and in so doing, elucidate new passions.
Fei-Fei Li, Google Cloud’s head of AI and Machine Learning, recently called for the development of “Human-Centered AI” in The New York Times. And along with Melinda Gates, she is behind an organization called AI4All, a non-profit seeking to broaden the scope and diversity of artificial intelligence, and who’s participatory in the conversation. AI is made for, and produced by, people, and each one of us has our own inside view, set of experiences, and bias. While being one of the world’s foremost experts in AI, she’s also a believer in expanding the outside view, bringing philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists into the room with AI. There is no way to build new tools for human beings without a deep concern for and study of human nature.
Author F. Scott Fitzgerald once stated that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” As we consider how we best refine ourselves, and our organizations, we might recognize that it is diversity –along many vectors– that exposes us to the outside view, and challenges us forward.
Scott Hartley is a venture capitalist and the best-selling author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, coming out in paperback with Mariner Books on June 5, 2018).