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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The Most Creative Game

Or, Why Studying Math Is The Best Thing You Can Do

In the hallway the Academy of Management conference last week I ran into a colleague who mentioned that he’s been following CRTVTY (hurray!). But he was surprised. “You’re a math guy,” he said. “What’s a math guy doing with a blog on creativity?” Well, aside from all of the research linking math to music and art, this brings up an interesting question: can math itself be a creative exercise?  Continue reading

How Not to Make a Catapult

With a soaring twenty-foot throwing arm, a hulking wooden frame, and three hundred pounds of sand hanging pendulously in its belly, our catapult made for an impressive school project. Mike and I had been working for weeks, but despite the machine’s fearsome appearance there was still plenty of work to be done. The latch that released the projectile was in particular giving us no end of trouble, alternately flinging its payload into the ground at our feet or sending us scampering for cover as potatoes and cantaloupes rained down from above. We put in countless afterschool afternoons and no small amount of engineering effort, but in the end were defeated.

Where had we gone wrong?  Continue reading

Friday Finds: Cool Products!

For today’s batch of internet inspiration, we’ve got a pile of wonderfully clever home gadgets. Starting at top left, there’s (1) a soda bottle drip catcher, (2) a bathtub desk, (3), the “Hamdogger”, (4) a thumb page-holder, (5) an umbrella pot, (6) the “Lay ‘n Go” lego mat, (7) a clever no-mess paintbrush, (8) the easy “Drain Changle” de-clogger, (9) anti-theft sandwich bags, (10) the “Cushy Closer”, (11) a magnet tiny parts bracelet, and (12) the owl earbud-declutterer.

All of these products are wonderfully simple and creative solutions to otherwise annoying little problems, from tangled earbuds to a crippling lack of hamburger buns. In several cases the inventions were also serendipitous discoveries. Jennifer Briggs invented the Drain Changle after accidentally clearing a clogged drain with an errant piece of floss, for example. Spending a few bucks to support creators like her is a fantastic idea, but with a bit of creative adaptation and DIY spirit, these gadgets would also all make fun home projects as well. So feel free to get your hands dirty and impress your friends; although enjoying other people’s creativity is okay too.

Happy Friday!

What is Management, Anyway?

In the grand scheme, the goal of academic research is to advance the state of human knowledge. While this necessarily entails diving into some fairly esoteric weeds, I won’t pretend that management scholars have it too tough in that regard (at least compared to chemistry). At the same time, our field is somewhat unique in that few people know what it actually means to study management (at least beyond an MBA). For years, people have been asking “so, you’re getting a PhD in how to make money?

That’s a fair question, but pursuing a PhD isn’t usually a ticket to fame and riches. Instead, academic research in management explores topics such as innovation, entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, and strategy. And because you’re now thinking, “those don’t really sound like real scientific pursuits either,” it’s probably worth digging a bit deeper.

The field has its roots in economics and sociology. Adam Smith was writing in the late 1700s, and sociologists such as Max Weber in the late 1800s, but management didn’t really emerge as a discipline until the early 1900s. Around that time, Chester Barnard drew on his experience at AT&T to lay out a comprehensive theory of how organizations and executives behaved, and Frederick Winslow Taylor began conducting rigorous comparisons of various production systems. The first dedicated MBA was offered in 1921 at Harvard, at which point scholars and practitioners were interested largely in how to effectively and profitably manage businesses. As time passed, however, the field expanded and evolved: scholars began to explore how organizations change and adapt to their environments (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967), what makes industries different and firms successful (Porter, 1980; Barney, 1991), and how organizations learn, interact, and grow (Henderson & Clark, 1990; DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; March, 1991). Today, the field covers innumerable topics from the role of cognition in decision-making to the structure of social movements to the origins of creativity. And while I know some of CRTVTY’s readers are far more qualified than I to describe the formal boundaries of the field, that’s a good summary of what our work is all about.

The big question is, why does any of it matter? Fundamentally, all of these topics relate to how the building blocks of the human world (economies, societies, and technologies) grow and change. Management scholars want to understand why the world we live in looks as it does: why is Silicon Valley such an innovative powerhouse, why do analog watches still exist, why did the wind industry take off but solar didn’t, and why do people make better decisions when they’re given less time to think? By examining those “little” questions, we are slowly shining a light onto more fundamental issues regarding our economy and society. My research, for instance, is motivated by a desire to understand how new industries and technologies come to be, so I’m exploring how electric vehicle companies collaborate with their partners and decide which products to build. My coworkers study topics as diverse as what makes government-sponsored science parks effective, how entrepreneurs identify opportunities, and how social movements have shaped the history of the biodiesel industry. All in all, it’s pretty fascinating stuff, and offers a lot of promise for shaping the world around us by creating dynamic economies, relevant technologies, and successful businesses. Or, of course, for making money.

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