Flickr Badge

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Ad hoc groups

Sachin posted an interesting comment about learning in companies.

One of the things I've noticed when talking to people is that most [Indian] companies do not take any steps to nurture adhoc groups. These are groups where like minded people can get together and talk or do side projects. Companies can create an environment where people can form such groups by themselves and then just sit back.

If you look at many of the US software companies (Google, MS etc) there is something there which causes people to do side projects and spread knowledge all the time. If one guy finds something cool, pretty soon there are a bunch of people discussing it.

Compare that with my experiences here. If anyone talks about some interesting topic, not connected with work, the reaction is something like "oh ok," rather than "cool, lets find out more about that." Or if someone decides to do something interesting, not connected with work, the first reaction is "whats the use" rather than "cool! lets do that this saturday".

Why is that? Is it that there are not many doer type people in Indian companies? Or is it because the company culture doesn't enable them to actually do anything? It is probably some combination of both I would think.

It's not like this in all companies of course (eg: Yahoo Bangalore), but its true in a depressingly large number of them.

What can be done about this?

This post is a part of the selected archive.


Perfekt said...

The longest comment you've seen in your life :-D Had made this up for something similar, in any case, you asked for it ;-)

The nature of innovation: "Innovation is part and parcel with going down blind alleys (exploring ideas that may or may not be commercially successful). You can't have one without the other."

Keeping the ideas percolating: "You need to... organize so that you can do as many experiments per unit of time as possible. If... you can organize in small, lightweight teams that have certain tools so they can do a lot of experiments per week or per month or what ever the right unit of time is, that you’ll get a lot more invention from that."



There is a big difference between pet projects being permitted and being encouraged. At Google it is actively encouraged for engineers to do a 20% project. This isn't a matter of doing something in your spare time, but more of actively making time for it. Heck, I don't have a good 20% project yet and I need one. If I don't come up with something I'm sure it could negatively impact my review.

The inspiration for Gmail came from a Google user complaining about the poor quality of existing email services, recalled Larry Page, Google co-founder and president, Products. "She kvetched about spending all her time filing messages or trying to find them," Page said. "And when she's not doing that, she has to delete email like crazy to stay under the obligatory four megabyte limit. So she asked, 'Can't you people fix this?'"

The idea that there could be a better way to handle email caught the attention of a Google engineer who thought it might be a good "20 percent time" project. (Google requires engineers to spend a day a week on projects that interest them, unrelated to their day jobs). Millions of M&Ms later, Gmail was born.


Apple (iPod):

How do you systematize innovation?
A: The system is that there is no system. That doesn't mean we don't have process. Apple is a very disciplined company, and we have great processes. But that's not what it's about. Process makes you more efficient.

But innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we've been thinking about a problem. It's ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.

And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We're always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it's only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.


3M (Post-it notes):

Consistent winners in the innovation arena like 3M, DuPont, Pfizer and HP universally utilize metrics for their innovation efforts. For example, 3M has utilized for many years a high-level corporate metric, "Percentage of Total Revenue from products introduced in the last 5 years." They had historically set a goal of 25% and were consistently hitting it. They then jacked the goal up to 30% and shortened the period of time to 4 years to accelerate their market growth. Because this metric was so much a part of the culture of 3M's innovation teams, it took only 2 years to exceed the new goal.

The most well-known McKnight principle, which is still in place at 3M today, is: "Mistakes will be made (by giving people the freedom and encouragement to act autonomously), but the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it is dictatorial and undertakes to tell those under its authority exactly how they must do their job.

Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative and it is essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow."

3M have a strong emphasis on research and development. In fact 30% of annual sales are from products introduced in the last four years.

A 3M tradition known as the "15 percent rule", encourages 3M researchers to spend up to 15 percent of their own time on projects of their own initiative. This stimulates unplanned experimentation and innovations, which have led to the development of 3M products such as ScotchgardTM Fabric protector, ScotchTM Masking tape, Fire-BreakTM Bushfire Fighting Foam and micro-structured technology now used in a growing number of end products.


Myth #1: Innovation is About Chance

In fact, if innovators had a bumper sticker, it might feature this comment from Thomas Alva Edison, arguably the most effective innovator of all time: “I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident. They came by work.” (Okay, so you’d need a big bumper.) Edison should know: His discovery of carbon-thread filament for incandescent light bulbs came only after he and his associates had spent a year doing hundreds of trials using other materials.


At GDC 2003 or 2004 (can't quite recall) Fred Brooks (author of The Mythical Man Month, in case you're here by mistake) gave the programming keynote, and one of his suggestions was exactly this: to give your employees 20% of their time to work on whatever they want. He mentioned the benefits to morale, retention, etc., but he said the main benefit was the freedom to find new methods and new technologies. Pounding away on the day-to-day coding will only give you incremental benefits, but these 20% projects could provide the germ for an entire new product or business model. It's basically making everyone part of the R&D department.

At GDC 2003 Fred Brooks (author of The Mythical Man Month) gave the programming keynote, and one of his suggestions was exactly this: In preserving creativity, it is very important to give each member of the design team spaces in which he is free to invent..." But also you need “creativity magic”. How do we make sure that happens? “The managers need to encourage people ... no matter how pressed the schedule is (this is very hard) ... to spend 10% of their time on wildcatting, on making maverick versions in their playpen. And if the managers encourage this (it’s going to happen anyway) it doesn’t add to the cost, it’s going to happen anyway if you have an excited team of creative people.” If you keep them from doing it, you can mess up the morale. Encourage it. Not all of these activities will be successful, but some will be great. “You want people to do this with a clear conscience and open approval, because this is what great programmers are going to do anyway.”

Thanks for asking, the pleasure is all mine ;-)

As for the catch, you need people who are capable of deciding what do with free time - people, people, people!!! ;-)

Siddhi said...

People, people, people. Thats a good point. Without them, nothing is ever going to happen.

What about the mandatory 20% time they have in Google? They don't have it in Microsoft, and there is a big debate raging about it.

Perfekt said...

The Drucker quote:

"The best way to deal with the future is to create it."

It should be manadatory. hmm... A better statement would be that it would seem like a coincidence that wherever such a rule is mandatory, the companies seem to be around forever _and_ profitably. But no, there is no coincidence.

I think it's another Drucker statement that it costs more to defend the past than to create the future. I agree.

Very strongly ;-)

Siddhi said...

Speaking of Drucker, I just got my hands on "The Essential Drucker". Read it?

Perfekt said...

I think I read it :-) but the guy is pretty straight forward and simple... Which is to say that most of his writings are built around the same basic principles and sound somewhat familiar.

The plus side is that it's common sense at its clearest and best.

The flip side is that most of it is pure abstraction/generalization at best and makes absolutely zero sense to practicalists at worst...

So what happens is I think he's cool. Adi on the other hand loathes him :-D Oh well :-)