Mining the ‘residue of time wasted’

    Innovation is talked about as the engine that will move the economy forward as we emerge from an economic downturn. But this watchword is easier said than implemented.

    WHYY’s Emma Jacobs sat in on a conversation about bringing creative thinking to the workplace. She stopped into the studio to tell NewsWorks’ guest-host Jennifer Lynn about it.

    Emma Jacobs: Yesterday, the Arts and Business and Council Chamber of Commerce hosted a writer named Jonah Lehrer. He looks at how the brain works on various topics. He’s a columnist at the Wall Street Journal and a regular voice on the public radio program, “Radio Lab.” He has a new book out called “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”

    What we talked about was how, in the workplace, people approach creativity in all these different ways.

    And they don’t always see eye to eye. For a local example, the union at the Philadelphia Inquirer recently wrote a letter to management after their layoffs (the Inquirer is hosting some news startups upstairs) and the union said, “You’re giving free rent to these startups that play pingpong on the fifth floor.” They didn’t like it, right? And they didn’t see the point.

    But Jonah says that these pingpong tables that, since Google, have shown up in all these different tech businesses, that they serve a purpose.

              Jonah Lehrer: There’s nothing magic about pingpong, of course. You know, I think what Google’s 

              insight — and this was an insight that was actually first pioneered by 3M — is that creativity

              isn’t a linear process. You can’t tell someone, “OK, don’t leave your desk; look at your

              computer screen; always look productive; don’t waste any time; and then give me five

              good ideas at the end of the day.” If only it were that easy. Instead, I think we have to

              remember Einstein’s great line that creativity is the residue of time wasted.

    Jonah Lehrer says the insights come when you relax; do whatever it is that gets you to stop thinking about work, maybe not pingpong, but that’s when you’ll have that moment of insight. That’s when you’ll have that big epiphany.

    Lynn: So do we all go out and buy pingpong tables? What’s a business supposed to do?

    Jacobs: Well, I actually talked with some companies who came to the event about how they apply this. This is Christopher Clark. He’s the president of Fiberlink, a software and services provider – mostly for communication over mobile devices. He has a couple hundred employees.

                 Chrisopher Clark: We might have puzzle day, with pizza and puzzles — “p-squared.”

                 We will try to solve puzzles that have nothing to do with business … we believe that

                 diversity of environment and diversity of exercise promote more of the creative side of

                 people and you just need to really carve out those times and those tools in order to do

                 that. And it does work.

    Lynn: Puzzles? Really, puzzles?

    Jacobs: Yes, puzzles, and here’s the thing. A lot of the business community is as incredulous as you are. But at the same time, they talk about innovation all the time. The next person you’ll hear is Harold Hambrose. He has about 75 employees and he wrote a business book called “A Wrench in the System.”

    He thinks all the talk about innovation is because businesses are hitting the limits of the efficiency and profits they can wring out with changes to their processes, and so growing, increasing their sales, they’re looking for something else.

                   Harold Hambrose: With a success like Apple, you know everybody’s talking about

                   Steve Jobs, and all of this. Well clearly he tapped into it. And the results for his business

                   were extraordinary, right? So now everyone wants to get on this bandwagon, say how do

                   we get innovation and creativity and into our company.

    Hambrose says some companies are probably looking for a cookbook: How do we make this happen for us?

    This is the thing according to Jonah Lehrer, who we started out with who wrote the book, so-to-speak on creativity. That’s not really possible. He said it’s not something you can put on a Powerpoint slide.

    You really need to let people do work, get distracted and produce some really good work and, you know, get out of their way.

    Lynn: OK, well I’m off to find some jigsaw puzzles and I guess I’m going to have to steal my son’s pingpong paddles. So thank you, Emma.

    Jacobs: Thank you.

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