Christmas seems to start so early nowadays, I keep feeling it must have happened by now and I somehow missed it. It’s so hard to believe that something that was being trailered in September hasn’t happened yet, my mind is already winding forward to New Year. (I can see I’m either going to have terrible trouble adjusting to the Olympics, or I’ll sleep through the whole thing in response to several years of over-trailering.) So – inspired in part by reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (review coming shortly: you try finishing a book amidst tree-decorating, card-writing, mince pie making and all the rest), some left field thoughts for those of you pondering your resolutions for 2012. As the book is about innovation, the ways it occurs and the ways in which it can be either supported or strangled at birth, and as my thinking has run along the lines of ‘things you can do or buy for others’, readers with a metaphorical bent might adapt this as a last-minute Christmas present list. Although hunting for the following in M&S on Christmas Eve might not be good for the nerves.

Admit 20% of their time is unproductive and redeploy it more usefully
No matter how rigorous your monitoring, timesheeting and supervising, I’d hazard a guess billing more than 80% of everyone’s time is a struggle for most organisations. (I type as a ‘creative’ how comes out in hives at the thought of Excel, but I have tried to be neutral here!). The best known response to this phenomenon is probably Google’s Innovation Time Off policy: developers and engineers spend one day per week on personal projects. The idea was actually pioneered by 3M with their own “15 percent rule”, and there’s an interesting Wired magazine article online here.

The premise is simple: working on targeted client projects imposes the very box that innovation needs to think outside. The solution is therefore to remove the box for part of the time (recognising that human creativity isn’t something that be switched on and off like an lamp). One Google VP, speaking at Stanford University in 2006, said that 50% of their new products had started live as personal projects. If you don’t believe in allowing staff to ‘play’ or ‘waste time’, presumably you don’t believe in GMail, Google News or Adsense either. And as that Wired article concludes:

3M’s 15 percent time is valuable simply because it “makes it OK to daydream – and I don’t think you can put that in a box and make it a two-hour slot in your day.”

It does, however, put whole new emphasis on the recruitment process to make sure the people you’re giving 15 or 20 percent ‘play time’ are people you believe may put it to good use. That old clichéd phrase ‘no timewasters’ may yet be re-born in job ads.

Invest in a departmental sledgehammer
Or just stop paying any attention to the people who send round memos about using Blu-Tac, or who you have to talk to about partition walls or trunking. Two buildings have starring roles in Johnson’s accounts of innovation – MIT’s Building 20 and Microsoft’s Building 99. The former – sadly now knocked down – abandoned any sense of bureaucratic control, and treated something designed as a temporary building as a raw canvas that could be freely adapted. As the Institute’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science records in one of several tribute websites:

Its “temporary nature” permitted its occupants to abuse it in ways that would not be tolerated in a permanent building. If you wanted to run a wire from one lab to another, you didn’t ask anybody’s permission — you just got out a screwdriver and poked a hole through the wall. Of course this was in the days before the dangers of asbestos were recognized.

This building cast a spell over those who worked in it. Many former occupants have noted the magical power of the building to bring out the best from those in it, and the very real feeling that this was a special, even a unique, place. At the same time it served as a breeding ground, or incubator, of many research areas, of the minds of its students, and of new organizations. Many MIT laboratories and centers had their origins in Building 20, or else were formed by people who had spent years there.”

Building 99’s design was informed by the company’s multi-disciplinarian research division, with write-on/wipe-off modular walls than can be quickly reconfigured. Johnson equates Building 99’s design with the concept of ‘flow’ proposed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (read our earlier post for more on him), centred as it is around supporting the needs of the people that work in it. (It’ll be fascinating to see in a few decades time if Building 99 has inspired any tribute websites of its own.)

If you’re in serviced offices, or just spent a fortune on branding your interior (the suggestion of a painful and slightly deviant personal adornment in those words should surely be a hint as to healthy an idea it might be?), this will obviously go down badly. But reviewing how far your working environment supports what you hope the team are doing – rather than forcing them to behave or organise or interact in ways determined by something as abstract as the floorplan – might not be such a bad idea. I’d hazard a guess it’s better that people work productively than tidily: it’s your customers you should be focusing on satisfying, not your estates manager (with no offence to these stalwarts, of course.)

Buy a watercooler and put it somewhere sensible
Reading Johnson’s description, something about his words when he spoke about its creators approach rang a bell:

In a sense, Clarkson built the watercoolers first, and then designed an office building round them.”

I thought of a friend’s studio: a sculptor who shares working space with other fine artists (including painters of different schools, installation artists), their old warehouse is treated with little dignity but great flexibility in creating working spaces, teaching spaces (artists need to pay the rent too), and an old table with a kettle on it in the midst of it all.

The interplay of ideas, feedback and comment that all the residents spark and are enthused by mostly happen when someone says ‘Brew, anyone?’ and everyone gathers in the centre of what would strike most managers as chaos. The orderly kitchenette with room for one person to drink tea at a time might not achieve as much: who would they interact with, learn anything from or be unexpectedly inspired by? The Tetley tea folk?

There is an orderly corner: a laptop and filing trays where the invoices are managed, the bill stubs are filed and the bookings for workshop attendees are managed. These are tasks that need focus (accuracy of carrying out existing defined processes), not creativity.

There’s a time and a place for breathing …
… and, outside of personal intimacy or interrogation techniques, it’s not down someone else’s neck. Most of us appreciate that risk should be managed, but equally that there is a relationship between risk and reward. Einstein may have said ‘a man who never made a mistake never made anything’, but the sentence needs ‘interesting’ on the end of it to capture an important element of innovation. Henry Ford captured it more closely when he said:

Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement.”

I don’t know if Ford uttered those words before or after the Fordlandia debacle (read our article about that – and Ford’s ultimate legacy in Detroit – here), but history certainly casts them as ‘the words of experience’. But remember that without mistakes we wouldn’t have penicillin. And, as Johnson records, mistakes have played important roles in the development of things as diverse as our understanding of the origin of the universe, valves, and pacemakers: if you think your managerial heart couldn’t take the strain of dealing with mistakes, the medical solution wouldn’t exist without them either.

But our tendency is to micro-manage to prevent as many (possibly fortuitous) mistakes as possible, or to dismiss them as irrelevant if they take us outside our current understanding or challenge a cherished principle. Worried by error, we believe we should mistrust (just as ‘received wisdom’ tells us people spending some of their time on possibly fruitless personal projects is folly). But ponder the following words from a Kobe Steel manager, paraphrased in Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism:

I have a PhD in metallurgy and have been working in Kobe Steel for nearly three decades, so I know a thing or two about steel-making. However, my company is now so large and complex that even I do not understand more than half the things that are going on within it. As for the other managers – with backgrounds in accounting and marketing – they really haven’t much of a clue. Despite this, our board of directors routinely approves the majority of projects submitted by our employees, because we believe that our employees work for the good of the company. If we assumed that everyone is out to promote his own interests and questioned the motivations of our employees all the time, the company would grind to a halt, as we would spend all our time going through proposals that we really don’t understand.”

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