Seeking Innovation between the Last Minute and the Critical Path

Google's Black Light Aquarium Room

Google’s Black Light Aquarium Room

It has been announced in various places, including Quartz and the Huffington Post that Google has effectively closed down its 20-percent time policy, which allowed employees to work on side projects for up to one fifth of the workweek. Along with the black light aquarium room, the excellent food, and the fleet of wi-fi buses, this block of company-sanctioned experimentation time made Google the go-to-place for smart designers, thinkers and programmers. Google was the do-no-evil wonderkind that nimbly stepped clear of the vast and dull corporate shadow being cast by Microsoft. At the heart of its growth was the wonderfully innovative idea that a company could be built basically on a product called knowledge.

Now I myself have never been CEO of a global colossus the size of Google, so I shall not presume to say I know to run a company of that size any better; however I have worked with the employees of companies large and small for twenty years now, and one thing I do know: innovation cannot be hatched from cubicles.

The workplace, whether its product is data, insurance, cars, law, or any one of a million other items, remains a collective of square holes into which the roundish heads of humans are forced. The expectation is that productivity comes from an eight or nine hour day, and that anything left over can be caught up at home. Cubicles are square; the blocks on the Microsoft Outlook calendar are square, and the boxes on the corporate hierarchical org chart are all square.

Humans, however, do not fit this square mold; they are flexible, organic and reactive. Their capacity for creative thought, for focus, for collaboration and for problem solving ebbs and flows with the chemistry of their blood, with quality of the sleep they had a few hours earlier, and with the impact of the day’s stresses on their nervous system. People’s brains do not solve problems or come up with brilliant ideas by staring at a blank computer screen. Ideas come when the eyes and hands are distracted by other things, at which point the brain has time to move around and unravel segments of its tightly wound  processing system.

That’s what made Google’s black light aquarium room so great. It wasn’t a place to hide from the boss or burn off a hangover; it was a place to keep the eyes busy while the brain did its work. The same applied to the Google staircase, where people were able meet and talk informally. These were the synergy machines; the brainstorming centres.

There seems a time, however, when bright young companies suddenly hit middle-age. For some it is when they go public, and they trade in the youthful fires of energy and idealism for a huge pile of cash and a boardroom full of imagination-free masters. For others, it is a size issue. As soon as a company needs an HR department, it has moved, emotionally, from motorcycle to minivan. And once a company turns inward, the focus becomes less on innovation and more on just getting the work done.

Yahoo’s recent and highly public recanting of its work-from-home policy is an example. Working from home has never been looked upon kindly by the managers of the world, regardless of the industry. After all who knows whether an employee is really doing the work assigned? Thus the nickname “shirking from home.”

The problem seems to be that many companies including the smart ones, seem to confuse face-time with quality output. For example, Jody Thompson, co-founder of consulting firm CultureRx, was quoted by Bloomberg stating that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer “has taken a giant leap backward…instead of keeping great talent, she is going to find herself with a workplace full of people who are good at showing up and putting in time.”

Productivity and innovation need room, time and opportunity to develop. In most companies, employees are trapped on an eternal critical path. Workload and deadlines clash with delays and wasteful practices so that every task being worked on bumps up against the next one, shunting them all down the line out the door and into personal time. Human beings cannot work well under pressure, and the critical path of an overstretched workforce is a prime manufacturer of that pressure.

I have met many people who claim to work best at the last minute; the adrenaline and energy of quickly arriving deadlines forces them to be at their best. However, based on my company’s analysis of their results, I have to disagree. They are forced to be the best they can be at that moment, certainly, since the human nervous system is programmed to be reactive and to kick into action-mode whenever a threat is present. However, high-energy output is not the same as high quality output. For example every document, presentation or proposal could be at least fifty percent better, more powerful and more concise when a smart person gives him/herself the time to plan, prepare, review and rewrite. But who has time for that?

Now this issue is not new. It has existed for most of the post-war high-tech age. However what is new is the mobility of the workforce upon which such companies rely. Professionals of all ages, from new grads to 50-somethings seeking a second, third or fourth career, are realizing that their best opportunity for a fulfilling and secure job might actually come from outside the well-manicured perimeters of a publicly traded company. Freelancing, contracting, and networking are becoming the essential skills of the new economy.

I recently interviewed a CEO who stated that when hiring new grads he always looked for candidates who had scored B’s and C’s in school, because, he said, these people know how to talk and communicate.  Social skills, he said, were more important, since they were the catalysts for ideas, innovations and relationships.

When I read about an organization that has folded in on itself and has replaced the spark of innovation with the slow-burning wick of administration, I ask myself, “How long will the goods ones stay there?” One need only look at the huge collection of start-ups, niche companies and self-employed experts, whose stock-in-trade is creativity, innovation, and agility. These individuals and companies recognize that they are the authors of their own success or failure. As such it is incumbent on them to stay great, competitive and employable. That’s the original spark that has always made great things happen.

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