Henry Ford

working to prevent innovation

I recently wrote about people wanting to play with and explore ideas. It struck a chord with several folks but raises the question: where do ideas come from?

Hmmm. We are in an idea economy but we plan our day and treat work as though we are in a manufacturing economy. We behave as though we get medals of honor for scheduling as many meetings as possible, topped only by the sheer number of emails we must answer.

The problem with ideas is they don’t come on cue and never behave in an efficient manner. They bob, weave, and show up when you least expect them. My best ideas come while running, mountain biking, showering, playing with my kids, reading, etc. Almost never have I ever had inspiration strike in a meeting (except when the sole purpose of the meeting was brainstorming), while answering routine email, on a conference call, etc. And the times I did it was because I was checked out, daydreaming, and ignoring the topic at hand.

I can’t even pretend to be an expert on how our brains work, but from my own experience ideas happen most frequently when my brain is mildly occupied (running, cycling, reading), when I’m away from distractions for an extended period (phones aren’t ringing, email isn’t popping up, I can’t check facebook, etc.), and/or when there is something new or novel happening. Hmmm, mildly occupied, undistracted, and/or something new happening. How often do even two of those three things come together during a typical work day?

How often do we let it? We talk about the value of ideas and innovation, but in the name of efficiency, metrics, measurable output, Taylorism, and just looking busy we design and conduct our work in ways that are almost guaranteed to block creativity. It’s as though we do everything we can to avoid thinking even while we claim to want ideas.

There is a legendary story of Henry Ford, a man who understood that efficiency is important AND so are ideas and innovation. As the story goes, an efficiency expert complained about a man sitting in his office with his feet up on his desk. Ford’s response was, “That man once had an idea that saved me a million dollars. When he got it, his feet were right where they are now.” It’s been mentioned that so many innovators and entrepreneurs get their start in college because that’s a phase of life when they have time to play with ideas. Some companies (famously 3M and google) build in time to play and explore. Unfortunately, these examples stand out because they are so rare.

When we are competing on copying and price, efficiency is crucial. When we’re competing by standing out, differentiating, and creating better solutions I can’t help but think that the blind busyness of efficiency might be getting in our way.

It’s worth saying again: We are in an idea economy but we plan our day and treat work as though we are in a manufacturing economy.

Time to do better.