As I mentioned in my last post, I just got back from the Defrag Conference. One of the first day talks was “This. Is. Sparta: Creating a culture of innovators” by Jay Simons, the VP of Marketing for Atlassian. Atlassian makes collaboration tools for software development teams and is apparently well regarded by those who use their products.
Jay talked at length about steps Atlassian had taken to keep the company innovative. I particularly like #3 on their list of core values, not to mention the statement (apparently from their head of HR) that HR policies are largely BS.
Much of his talk was focused on concepts like “20% Time”, which is very similar to Google’s program by the same name i.e. 20% of an employees time can be spent working on whatever they like. He also talked about other initiatives such as “Lab Week”. During a lab week, an entire team comes together in the style of mad scientists to solve a particular problem. During the week, the entire team wears lab coats.
It’s easy to look at these kind of initiatives and make fun of them. At best, they seem like goofy gimmicks that simply aren’t sustainable in a “real” company, especially not if there is actual work to be done.
At lunch, I happened to be sat across from Vivek Wadhwa. I am a huge fan of his work, and usually find myself vigorously nodding in agreement with everything he writes. His studies on the real nature of entrepreneurship, women in tech and emerging markets (three separate areas, not one big paper) are pragmatic, thought provoking and insightful. The subject of Lab Week came up, and Vivek made a comment regarding whether or not Lab Week (and having folks run around in lab coats) was actually useful or just silly.
You might think my curmudgeonly self would be in the “damn young kids and their silliness” camp, but I’m not.
A number of years ago I had the pleasure of working with a highly creative team at Hasbro Toys. We were working on a new project and they invited several of us to join them in their brainstorming session. We camped out in a room full of whiteboards, large paper pads on easels, tape and a secret weapon: an enormous bucket of Hubba Bubba (full sugar, of course).
At first I assumed it was just a toy-company-being-wacky thing. But as the two day brainstorming session progressed, I started to see that it was an act of genius.
Brainstorming is hard to do right. You often need to cover a lot of ground. You need to bravely explore avenues that may seem foolish at first. You need everyone to forget the preconceived ideas and answers they arrived with, and everyone needs to contribute. Successful brainstorming requires a change in attitude.
Enter Hubba Bubba.
- If you’re used to corporate meetings, it completely throws you off-guard to be presented with a giant bucket of gum.
- It is really hard to monopolize a conversation when you have a mouthful of gum.
- It is much harder to remain formal and guarded when everyone else has a mouthful of gum.
- Chewing gum makes you thirsty. Everyone has to stop to drink water/soda/whatever, and that means everyone also has to hit the bathroom. This provides natural breaks for every participant, no matter how much they want to be heard.
The net result is that nobody monopolizes the conversation. Ideas flow freely and get kicked around until the right answers present themselves.
And from apparent silliness, magic is born.
I’ve repeated the Hubba Bubba process many times and it has always delivered results.
I suspect the same is true of many of the seemingly gimmicky ideas like Lab Week. You wear a lab coat to work and you feel different. Feeling different can change how you think and influence the way you approach a problem. A different approach yields a different answer, and that’s where true innovation often happens.