How to Start Innovating and Make Work Fun Again

by Ville Laurikari on Thursday, August 27, 2009

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Is there always something on your to-do list? Is your project manager constantly barraging you with task after task after task? Is there an “innovation initiative” going on in your company, but somehow nobody seems to be doing all that innovating?

If this sounds like your company, I have good news for you. By the end of this post you’ll not only understand why your company isn’t very innovative – you will also know what you can do about it.

The #1 Innovation Killer

The one thing responsible for most innovation-stifling in companies today is probably optimizing human resources for maximum efficiency. You know, doing the biggest amount of work possible with the least amount of resources.

On the surface, it seems like a reasonable thing to strive for. Why hire five people to do customer support when four people can handle it, if they work hard? There’s nothing wrong with working hard, is there? Why should you be paid for slacking off?

Well, of course there is nothing wrong with working hard. But it’s kind of hard to have a broad mind and think out of the box and, you know, innovate, when there’s a manager breathing down your neck demanding for a completion date on that critical bug fix.

One of my old bosses had a fun way to put this. He said “we’re too busy pushing the bicycle to hop on and start riding“. That’s exactly what is going on in the 100% efficient organization. Pushing the bicycle is 100% efficient – all effort is spent in moving the bicycle. But it sure isn’t the most effective way to move a bicycle from A to B.

In Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, Tom DeMarco puts it this way:

In our constant quest to make our organizations more efficient (reduction of overhead, standardization of processes, overworking management and resources), we have actually made them less effective. The solution lies in (re)introducing `slack’. Slack is the lubricant required to effect change, it is the degree of freedom that enables reinvention and true effectiveness.

Why You Cannot Innovate Under Pressure

Dan Pink recently gave a fantastic talk on the science of motivation. I invite you to watch this video now:

Did you watch it yet? Please do, it’s really worth it.

I’ll just wait here until you’re done…

OK, good.

The key point I want to make here is that If a task requires even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward leads to poorer performance. This is a scientific fact, and can be extrapolated from trick questions such as the candle problem to “real work”. See Functional fixedness.

What Should You Do?

If you’re a manager and you can decide on how time is spent in your company, fantastic! The first thing to try is to have a FedEx day a few times a year. If you watched the video, you already know what it is: set aside a day for developers to work on whatever they want and then demonstrate results to the entire company.  Repeat often.

If you’re an executive manager, you may have the power go the Google way. Decide that your knowledge workers can spend one day a week on whatever they want to.

If you’re a developer, show this post to your manager. Hopefully you can cajole him into trying some of that FedEx. If not, do a FedEx day or three as a skunkworks project. Nobody needs to know, right? Until, of course, when you get some results worth showing.  As they say, sometimes it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.

So, pull your nose out of the task list, bug tracker, inbox, or calendar for a while.  It’s time to put the fun back into your work.

Related posts:

  1. You Don’t Need a Deadline

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SkillAssert August 30, 2009 at 20:57

But in my previous company, the 100% plus efficiency was because of bad hire. Out of 18 developers, 6 were not productive (they did not have their basics right and were not willing to learn). I guess 33% being not star developers is not good for a team.

Ville Laurikari August 31, 2009 at 15:21

The way I see it, there will always be differences in productivity between individual developers. Hell, there will be huge differences in productivity even for the same developer at different times.

Of course low productivity across the board is a problem in it’s own right, whatever it is that is causing it – and it can be all sorts of things. It could be that you have a bad hiring process, but just as likely it could be caused not by “bad material” but bad management.

Regardless of variations in productivity, true innovation will always require some no-pressure time. On the whole, overwork leads to less innovation.

igorsukharev August 31, 2009 at 20:42

How to Start Innovating and Make Work Fun Again

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

Giorgio Sironi September 1, 2009 at 11:25

Having Authority and Responsibility is the key to get tasks done, and also for innovating.

rene_silva September 1, 2009 at 19:37

Cómo empezar a innovar y hacer que tu trabajo vuelva a ser divertido *recomendado*

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

RafeHatfield September 2, 2009 at 02:03

How to Start Innovating & Make Work Fun Again

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

adiciocchis September 2, 2009 at 02:14

Necesito mi “FedEx day”

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

simonbingham September 2, 2009 at 14:39

A great article by Ville Laurikari on why more efficient can mean less effective. (via @halhelms)

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

fs111 September 2, 2009 at 22:50

Very interesting blog post about innovation and how companies are doing it wrong:

This comment was originally posted on Twitter

Roza November 9, 2011 at 13:47

Great to read this!
We at Projectplace belive in FedEx days and decided to try it out. You can read how we made it on our blog:

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