Yet Another Excuse to Cut Out Early

In the mood to start your weekend early? It might not be a bad idea, according to an article in Sunday’s New York Times by Jason Fried, the co-founder and CEO of a Chicago-based software company called 37signals. In it, he discusses two experiments that his firm has used to improve creativity and productivity:

1. During the summer, the company runs on a four-day workweek. Rather than cram forty hours into four days, they actually switch to a 32-hour workweek. This creates helpful pressure without introducing creativity-crushing stress, just as we discussed in earlier posts (Creativity Under the Gun and You Should Go Home Early Today).

2. Every June, employees use their non-essential time to explore projects and ideas of their own. As Keith Sawyer points out in his excellent blog “Creativity and Innovation“, this is actually a technique commonly used at companies like Google (20% time) and W. L. Gore (dabble time). The practice dates back to 3M, which initiated “15% time” as early as the 1940s. The basic idea, as always, is to encourage divergent thinking and allow employees to find the products that might become the next big thing.

It’s a short article, but it’s exciting to hear about companies that are exploring creative new ways to get work done. Creativity may not be a primary consideration in every profession, but I wouldn’t mind seeing our society place a greater emphasis on those in which it is. After all, taupe walls and square lines survived through a period of amazing economic growth and revolutionary innovation over the past half century, but it’s arguable whether those environments have been good for the people in them. The same holds for the length of the American workweek, which has been climbing steadily over the past decades and is now one of the longest in the world. Three cheers for the managers that see happy and healthy employees as a key part of a healthy (and creative) company.

Check out Jason’s op-ed at NYTimes, and thanks to Keith Sawyer for tipping me off.

China’s Creative Copycats

Whether you view China’s shanzai workshops as clever innovators or outright bandits, there’s no denying that they’re good at what they do. Shanzhai cellphones accounted for about 20% of the global 2G mobile market in 2010, and shanzhai companies like Baidu and Tencent are now emerging as world-class players in age of internet commerce.

The name “shanzhai” is a reference to historical warlord hideouts, nestled high in the mountains beyond the reach of government control, and today describes counterfeiters and gadget-makers with a similarly healthy disrespect for the law. To their detractors, the shanzhai are shameless imitators, selling cut-rate knockoffs under names like SQNY electronics, Bucksstar coffee, Blockberry, and Hiphone. To others, they are creatively borrowing and building on available ideas, improving products and adapting them to local markets. The “Nckia” brand name might be a blatant rip off, but the built-in flashlight could be useful in areas without reliable electricity, and who wouldn’t want a combination cigarette box and cell phone?

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Hey Crowd, Who’s Feeling Clever?

Let’s say you run a research lab, and you’ve got a really tough problem. I mean a real doozy – your best scientists have been working on it for years and they haven’t been able to figure anything out. But you still need an answer, so how are you going to get one?

Enter a new phenomenon: Open Innovation. You’ve probably heard of companies relying on the “wisdom of the crowds” for things like the latest Doritos ad campaigns, Threadless T-shirt designs, and the world’s largest encyclopedia, but you may not know that firms are also turning to crowds with their really high-tech conundrums. A number of platforms have sprung up to connect problem seekers with problem solvers, of which Innocentive (founded 2001) is probably the most famous.

I’ll go more into Open Innovation (and it’s cousin, Crowdsourcing) in a later post, but the basic idea behind Innocentive is that companies can post problems and associated rewards on a website where individual scientists can sign up to view them. If someone thinks they might be able to answer a problem, they connect with the company and send in a solution. The company then determines the best solutions and gives (big) rewards to the solvers – up to the tune of $100,000. Keep in mind, though, these are complex research problems. Examples include designing an injectable suspension placebo with no pharmacological or biological activity, or synthesizing a food grade polymer delivery system. So then the big question: does it actually work?  Continue reading

We Think You Need This

Nobody likes commercial breaks, but advertising is what keeps so many of our beloved products like WordPress, Gmail, and ABC’s The Bachelorette online and available. And it’s not just a necessary evil, it’s a really interesting and really valuable opportunity for creative thinking. Advertisers have a fascinating problem: how do you convince someone that they should purchase a product, given that they’re likely bombarded by around 5,000 ads per day and that even if they do notice you they’ll probably resent your interruption?

Google goes for data. With their giant suite of products they’re able to capture ever more data about you, and if you read up on their business plan it’s to (eventually) present ads that are so targeted and so relevant that you’re glad to see them. In conventional media, ads can be bright and flashy (Sunday Sunday Sunday!), loud and annoying (Head On! Apply directly to forehead!), or downright subtle.That’s the idea behind product placement, which is designed to sneak past your anti-advertising filters and make you think, “yeah, Doritos really would be good right now.” Companies can appeal to childhood memories (Coke), sports heroes (Nike), heartstrings (SPCA), or national pride (Bud). But the ones that I find most exciting are those that engage our minds and our curiosity.

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