THOU SHALT TINKER
It’s the latest trend in research and development: pencilling in tinkering time on the company clock. This craze started out with Google’s well-known “20 per cent time” initiative, which encouraged employees to spend 20 per cent of their working hours on a project not related to their job description.
Then came Apple, which early last year launched an in-house tinkering program known as Blue Sky – exactly the kind of thing famously prohibited by its late founder Steve Jobs. More recently, LinkedIn created InCubator, an in-house programen-couraging the company’s engineers to develop their own ideas into projects with the lure of between 30 and 90 days away from their regular work to foster them.
The underlying idea is the same: Companies need innovative ideas and products, the kind that usually come from start-ups. So why not nurture the start-up mentality in-house and reap all the glory and the profits?
Even if done right, institutionalised playtime has its limits. Manyof today’s companies have the best of intentions when they attempt to inspire even the lowliest drones to step forward with their brilliant pet projects. In practice, however, these structured “fun time” activities can end up the equivalent of the dreaded corporate retreat.
Of course, scheduled playtime at work is nothing new: 3M started its “15 per cent time” program in 1948. And Hewlett-Packard had tinkering time scheduled for Friday afternoons after lunch from its earliest days. Both companies squeezed key products from such free-form creative sessions, from Post-it notes to laser printers.
Today’s corporate employees are heavily monitored, in terms of both time and resources. Formost of them, being commanded to tinker at the company’s expense is understandably
EMPLOYEES ARE HEAVILY MONITORED, IN TERMS OF BOTH TIME AND RESOURCES. FOR MOST OF THEM, BEING COMMANDED TO TINKER AT THE COMPANY’S EXPENSE
IS UNDERSTANDABLY TERRIFYING.
terrifying. Innovation, at its heart, is a torturous and anarchical act. True tinkerers tend to be dilettantes, freeform creative types motivated more by curiosity than by the bottom line.
So, if we cannot institutionalise tinkering, how do we get more of it? One radical possibility could be to let the tinkerers profit more from their innovations than the companies that are sponsoring them. AToronto-based software company, Fusenet, allows its technical staff to spend every Friday working upon projects of their own design. Individual employees retain the rights to anything they develop. In return, they give Fusenet the right of first refusal to invest in any resulting commercial venture.