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It’s OK to daydream

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Reverie One needn’t be glued to computer 24X7 to get revved up thoughts
Reverie One needn’t be glued to computer 24X7 to get revved up thoughts

Trend Inducing employees to explore new ideas, companies are changing workplaces into idea labs. G.B.S.N.P. Varma finds out more

Ideas are angles. They bob up in front of the mind’s eye, flit across mental horizon. They have the arcs of development and trajectories of growth. They create a world and a world-view and if unattended, they take leave of us.

As companies innovate on global scale, they ‘bet the whole farm’ on the next big thing. And companies have their own methods of coming up with ideas (assuming it can be called ‘method’). More often than not, companies, much like individuals, stumble on new ideas.

Idea labs

To induce employees to explore new ideas, test their practicality in real world, and to consciously manage failure without repercussions like firing people, companies are changing their workplaces into idea labs. In this fast-changing scenario, “companies must retool their stuff constantly,” says Vamsi Krishna, a business analyst.

Harnessing the creative need for individual exploration, Google lets its employees spend 20 per cent of their time --- a day a week--- on technology projects of their own choice, projects that catch their fancy, that get them jazzed up. These projects are not related to their normal day-to-day work. ‘Google News’, ‘G-mail’ and ‘Orkut’ were developed in this freewheeling time and later they were fine-tuned. “This is excellent,” exclaims Arun Kumar, a developer who dreams of working for Google. “You get the code quickly out of whatever thing you like without wasting time on boring discussions and endless QAs, which leave little time for real work.” Variations of this idea work in different places. Yahoo has conceptualized it into ‘Brickhouse’ where four to six people work for four to six months just like start-ups with all its excitement, without looking over their shoulders and taking risks for the heck of it.

Taking the cue from Google, BBC RadioLabs allows its employees take 10 per cent of time for a project of their own choice, just to make a video or to add multimedia elements to the story.

“We are encouraged to do in-house projects,” says Vishal, a coder, “but obviously the scale is not what is in these big companies.” More importantly, “it’s their culture that encourages playing with different ideas and working on things that have the possibilities.”

Giving company’s time for individual projects is not new. 3M Corp., better known for Post-it note, masking adhesive and other useful products, pioneered this culture. For decades, their scientists have been encouraged to spend 15 per cent time on their dream projects.

Perennial start-up culture

It’s obvious that the culture combining the ballsy attitude of start-ups and the experience of growing company suits best for today’s world. As Scott Berkun notes in his blog, “Start-ups thrive in part because there are way more decisions to be made than people, granting individuals tons of autonomy. When there are 10 decisions to be made, but only two people, there’s little motivation to fight over decision-making power. But when a company grows and the ratio of people to decisions runs the other way (two decisions to be made by 10 people), thriving ends and bureaucratic misery begins.”

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