The 20% Time Rule

in #MedEd by

For understanding the purport of the rant that is about to follow, you need to take a look at this 20-odd minute long TED talk by Google Gods Sergey Brin and Larry Page first:

So now that you are caught up with the 20% time rule, let the rant commence!


This talk is from quite some time back, when Orkut was born and AdSense was conceived, and GNews was just released. A lot has happened since then, including the fall of the band Las Ketchup, of course. But some things have remained the same. The Google way of working, the Google philosophy of innovation, the Google principles of inviting innovations: nothing’s changed with that.

A lot of people criticized Google a bunch about the Google Wave, a product that really didn’t take off as much as Google Inc would have liked it to, and they had to eventually scrap it off from public view. In fact, Google has had more failed products than any other company, internet-based or not, and that has largely been because they have released many, many  more products than their nearest competitors. And that is what has kept them the big one over the years.

And in this talk, the principle of the 20% time is what comes through. As Larry Page says, at the Goog complex, they allow their engineers to work on their pet projects that they are really passionate about for 20% of their time. And that leads to Googlettes, or small Google products, which then snowball into bigger and better things. And this principle resonates well with me! It is an incredible system where the employees are actively encouraged to think beyond the box, to spawn new ideas and to generate products which they think are going to work. This goes a long way in explaining how Google has managed to stay at the top of the pile for so long.

Internet fads are notorious for their ephemerality. With giants like Yahoo!, Microsoft and Bing! conglomerated to fight against them, Google has still stuck out to be in the lead, often not by much more than a nose length, but in the lead, undoubtedly.

I was wondering, what with the amount of proposed changes being rung in the Indian medical education system, could we learn something like this from the Goog? Could we not envision a system where the students are actively involved with the subjects they study? Something to infuse some interest in the books/courses that they go through besides the obvious intent on learning the shit to pass/top (depending on your gunner quotient) an examination? Listening to this TED talk, I realized that most of the things that enthused me were of no use in the traditional examination, but have stood me in good stead academically. For example, while I struggled with Microbiology throughout the 3 semesters I was scheduled to study it, I discovered a passion for it while working on a drug resistance project. With more involvement in the project, I studied it more intensely and became more interested in the subject: about a year after I passed it, and no longer needed it academically! Whilst everyone, including me, wondered what good it might do to me, when I joined in Critical Care, I found my basic knowledge a great tool in taking decisions regarding appropriate use of antibiotics and working to prevent emergence of resistance in a setting which is notorious for the same.

So, the 20% time rule worked for me, not in an obvious and quantifiable manner, but in a manner that obviously led to some positive results.

I know I am asking a lot when I expect the overlords of Indian medical education to look at things from a Brin-Page angle (kinda obvious, isn’t it?), but is it too much to ask if I request them to devise a system which, even if remotely, encourages lateral thinking and spawns interest and enthusiasm for the subjects amongst the students?

</end rant>

Skeptic Oslerphile, Scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research, National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. Interests include: Emerging Infections, Public Health, Antimicrobial Resistance, One Health and Zoonoses, Diarrheal Diseases, Medical Education, Medical History, Open Access, Healthcare Social Media and Health2.0. Opinions are my own!


  1. Great write up Pranab! Let us begin by devising this system ourselves. Once we start working in parallel ( 20% of our time ) others may join in. Off course we have to take care that we are in the mainstream as well 80% of the time. :-).

    • Thanks for the kind words! I was planning to do some posts on my med ed musings and the changes being called in by the mci has set the tone up perfectly. 🙂

  2. Although I didnt click the video link, you did a good job of explaining the concept. What you called a rant, I call a logical discourse and I could relate to it. Perhaps when you get in the position to do it, you can lead by example also, and will be an inovator yourself. Good post.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words. I have still got to go a looooong way before I manage to find a voice in the system, and I just hope that this time in the system does not change me. 🙂

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