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Selling Yourself & Your Ideas is the New 20 Percent Time

To-Sell-is-Human-CoverWhile I haven’t yet read Daniel Pink’s — the other dp — latest literary offering, “To Sell Is Human” I can glean from the chapter titles — and chapter one in particular — that he believes a) we’re all in the business of selling ourselves and/or our ideas and b) we unknowingly devote a good portion of time doing so.

The first chapter is described as follows:

We’re All in Sales Now – Some 1 in 9 workers still earn a living in traditional sales. The other 8 in 9 are engaged in “non-sales selling.” We devote upward of 40 percent of our time on the job to moving others.

Over at Google, there are ‘rumours‘ the oft described “20 percent time” of their engineers is being thrown to the bin. That particular morsel of free time was given to engineers so they could create and/or work on whatever they thought might be useful, cool, creative … even funky.

Heck, they brought us AdSense.

Ok, bad example, but you like your Gmail account, right?

Between Google’s 20 percent time concept, Pink’s new book and my own mental musings, I’ve stumbled across a theory I’d like to test.

I’ve never personally worked on my own, as a freelancer or as ‘my own boss’. I’ve always worked for ‘the organization’, be it at a high school, a higher education institution or for the past 12 years in the corporate jungle.

What I’ve begun to realize (and observe) however in my time in ‘the organization’ is that employees need to be thinking of their own time management planning in a different light. I believe that in order to be successful in the organization we need to do a much better job of selling, communicating, pitching, positioning and depicting our ideas — and to a degree ourselves — inside the organization itself.

The problem we all face, however, is time itself.

Ever hear of the term, “we need to do more with less“?

Employees may in fact need to devote 20 percent of their time to the activity of selling themselves and communicating their ideas to not only be successful but to feel good about themselves, their roles, their career and their objectives.

20-timeOver at Hacker News, my thoughts seemed to magically converge when surfing the ole internet in a quest to validate my assumptions. On one hand there was debate amongst anonymous Google engineers who chimed in on the discussion forum regarding Google’s 20 percent time concept. On the other, surreptitious and unknowing discussion of Pink’s new thesis/book. One of the comments from an engineer suggested the following:

However, I would agree that it <Google’s 20 percent time> is “as good as dead”. What killed 20% time? Stack ranking.

Google’s perf management is basically an elaborate game where using 20% time is a losing move. In my time there, this has become markedly more the case. I have done many engineering/coding 20% projects and other non-engineering projects, with probably 20-40% producing “real” results (which over 7 years I think has been more than worth it for the company). But these projects are generally not rewarded. Part of the problem is that you actually need 40% time now at Google — 20% to do stuff, then 20% to tell everyone what you did (sell it).

I am a bit disappointed that relatively few of my peers will consciously make the tradeoff of accepting a slower promotion rate in return for learning new things. Promotion optimizes for depth and not breadth. Breadth — connecting disparate ideas — is almost invariably what’s needed for groundbreaking innovation.

Take aside the actual point to this engineer’s post — which of course has more to do with the Jack Welch inspired stack ranking model of performance management, which I’ll deal with at another point in time in this space — and you will see a hint of what I’m trying to point out.

Part of the problem is that you actually need 40% time now at Google — 20% to do stuff, then 20% to tell everyone what you did (sell it).

I’ve posted it again above from the original comment and made it both bold and green for super cool special effects to solidify my point. If that doesn’t work, I swear I’ll electronically mail you a dancing baby animated gif once a day until further notice.

As I only personally know an existence within ‘the organization’, I can assure you this engineer is emoting candidly about the nuances of the organization itself. It is happening to you. It is happening to me. It happens to everyone in ‘the organization’.

It takes time to make change and it takes an inordinate amount of time to sell and communicate your own ideas for change.

As a result, perhaps we all should be sorting through our own time management planning mechanisms and coming up with ways in which to devote 20 percent of our time to this necessary action.

I’ll keep an eye out for an AdSense advertisement that might help us both. I’ll read Pink’s new book as well, where he probably has already solved my corporate anthropology nightmare.


  • Gail Severini / 16 October 2013 8:28

    Dan, yes to all your points AND doesn’t it seems like a Tower of Babel? We are all talking … who is understanding all this noise?

    It seems to me that Peter Drucker’s “knowledge worker” concept has come to fruition. Yes, internal resources do have to “sell” themselves – their (your) “contracts” with the organization are similar if not identical to externals (contractors, consultants, etc) in that. We all have to sell our ideas to get buy-in, support, resources, etc. We have to promote ourselves to keep our jobs and to get promotions. This has ever been true. However, it has become an increasingly competitive world – we all know that with the next economic downturn there will be layoffs – where will you be when the music stops? And, many organizational cultures perpetuate this climate of anxiety in the interest of keeping people on their toes. There are many leaders who believe that competition brings out the best performances. This all turns up the pressure to promote.

    Your quote from the Google engineer however should give us all pause – some % of selling seems reasonable but 20%? That sounds crazy.
    Besides I thought the original intent of Google’s 20% time was supposed to be the reward itself, i.e. the autonomy to work on something you felt was important was supposed to be satisfying? If the benefit of 20% time has become to compete for recognition, bonuses, awards, promotions maybe that is where it went wrong.

    • Dan Pontefract / 18 October 2013 10:34

      Hey @Gail – I believe the 20% time at Google wasn’t so much a reward as it was a part of the engineering culture. I was simply thinking out loud and that various types of workers in today’s organizations have to allocate some sort of time (doesn’t have to be 20%) to devote to communicating, etc. I’m not 100% certain every employee ‘gets’ this need.

Want to leave a comment? I'd love to hear from you. Cheers, dp.