Ex-Google CEO Describes ‘Rough’ Review Process For New Projects

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Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt shares details of the “brutal” review process employees had to go through when pitching ideas for new products.

During a question and answer session at the Collision Conference in Toronto, Schmidt was asked about his approach to futures forecasting and whether he uses a bottom-up or top-down approach.

Collision is a conference aimed at startups and investors, so the questions asked were all in that area.

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A question prompted Schmidt to drop some interesting tidbits about Google and what it took for employees to get their ideas off the ground while he was CEO.

Google popularized offering time to work on side projects as a perk for employees — known as the 20% project. Several of these projects have become premium products like Gmail, AdSense and Google News.

Schmidt revealed his approach to managing the 20% project and how it differed from how he explained it when he worked for Google.


Schmidt on Google’s 20% project

Responding to the question about forecasting, Schmidt talked about the approach he and his co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin took during his time at Google.

Publicly, Schmidt has always said that Google took a bottom-up approach to managing the 20% project. That means it was a collaborative effort to decide what steps to take with new product ideas.

However, Schmidt tells Collision that company executives were more involved than previously reported.

It wasn’t a team decision that allowed projects to take things to the next level. The decision was made through a “brutal” management review process.

“When I ran Google, I always explained how we did it. It was completely uphill. You had 20% time where teams could come together and people could follow their passion. They were brilliant people, the greatest talents.

I won’t tell you the rest of the story – and the rest is that Larry [Page]Sergei [Brin]and I was reviewing these things, and these reviews were brutal.

Are these ideas enough?
Can we finance them?
Will they work?
Will they evolve?
Are they legal?

To build a culture of systemic innovation, and I think we’re talking here, you have to be both bottom-up and top-down. »

Schmidt explains the benefits of combining bottom-up and top-down decision making, saying both are needed to be successful in the next 10 to 20 years.

“The bottoms-up is the origin of creative ideas, and the top-down organizes and systematizes decision-making. If you do both, you will win big in the next 10-20 years.

If you do a little, you will do well. You will be “one of” the companies. Big companies can invent something, then systematize it, then regularize it, then scale it. »

Employee criticism of the project 20%

Schmidt’s statement to Collision is consistent with what Google employees have said about the project in the past.

In 2010, a Google employee posted a thread on Quora saying the project was “ineffective” because of the multiple levels of approval needed to launch anything.

“There is a colossal amount of overhead involved in launching anything. The number of approvals (technical and product) required for the smallest of launches is overwhelming. For example, you will need to have your service live in multiple data centers from day one, as Google has extremely frequent scheduled maintenance. There are tools to help you out, but you have to do a ton of leg work. »

Learn more about Google’s 20% project

Google’s 20% project was in place before the company went public in 2004 and was scrapped in 2013.

A former Google employee blamed the death of the 20% policy on how it was handled by management, citing an obsession with efficiency and productivity. Again, this matches Schmidt’s statement to Collision.

In 2016, Google relaunched its 20% project time concept in the form of the Area 120 incubator. Although it has spawned over 50 projects, none have achieved the same level of success as Gmail and AdSense.

In late 2021, Google revamped Area 120 under a new division called Google Labs, which is also home to Google’s AR and VR initiatives.

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