• John Bowie

Turn 'em Loose! #3: Time


It’s 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon. You had a productive morning, but you’ve been beating your head against the wall for a couple of hours trying to find an innovative solution to a wicked-hard problem and you’re not getting anywhere. You have three hours to go before it’s time to go home and you’re expected to sit at your desk in your 10x10 cubicle, stare at the screen, and make sure your presence indicator shines green until five ‘o clock. That’s what you’re paid for. Eight hours, not five.

There’s an activity called Crazy 8s on Tuesday’s agenda in Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp. In this exercise, participants have eight minutes to sketch eight solutions to a design problem. The first time I tried it I thought there was no way I could come up with eight distinct solutions to the problem every sixty seconds, but I did. It’s a great way to get your creative juices flowing. The process works well for jump-starting your design cycle.

Now consider the even Crazier 8s of the standard work week. Do this for eight hours a day, five days a week. That’s 480 distinct ideas/day; 2,400/week. But generating ideas is the easy part. The competing concepts have to be analyzed, compared, discarded, and iterated before the final solution reveals itself.

Sounds insane, right? Designers – your company’s greatest potential resource for driving innovation – will hit a wall and burn out under these conditions. Designers needs time and distance between attempts at solutions in order to see them clearly.

Expecting a creative person to innovate eight hours per day (especially in a cube farm) is a ridiculous vestige of the industrial age. You can turn screws on an assembly line for eight hours a day (albeit nothing could be more boring), but you can’t mass produce ideas this way.

I used to tell my internal design team that one great design concept created in a thirty-minute lightning strike of inspiration is worth eight hours of grinding away at your desk. When inspiration refuses to show up, get up, go somewhere, and do something else. Often, it’s those uninspired hours in the week when your subconscious is working on the problem and getting ready to surface the solution.

I gave my team this latitude with regards to time–not to circumvent my employers’ policies–but to serve their best interests. The design concept that materializes in that 30-minute burst of insight is everything. It can make the difference between leading and following in the industry, the difference between setting the product experience bar so high that no competitor can catch you versus languishing in last year’s mediocrity.

Conjuring design solutions out of the ether requires a deep understanding of the problem, of the people who have the problem, of the conditions in which the problem exists, of the root cause of the problem, and of constraints surrounding the problem. All of these dimensions need to ferment simultaneously in the designer’s mind. But that’s not all: you have to mix in tangential ingredients–at your daughter’s soccer game, while going on a hike, by reading a book, or watching a movie–before this multidimensional understanding of the problem can be distilled into a solution. This takes time away from your desk – but employers must never misinterpret the office hiatus as taking time away from the problem.

Remember the Intrapreneur’s Ten Commandments that I included in the first post in this series? Which of Pinchot’s commandments will you need to follow at your company to turn ‘em loose?

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