Home >Opinion >Columns >The little-known ways WFH spurs innovation

Many organizations today are in two minds. They are confused whether they should ask all their employees to come back to offices to work or allow them to continue working from their homes. Some companies are planning to introduce a hybrid model, where employees work from their offices and homes on different days. No doubt, after the pandemic, individual employees will have more freedom to decide where and when they work. How can organizations take advantage of this new-found individual freedom? As it happens, a guide to this future scenario can be found in a book that was written more than 80 years ago.

The book, A Technique for Producing Ideas: The Simple Five-Step Formula Anyone Can Use to be More Creative in Business and in Life! by James Webb Young, was first published in 1939. Thoughts from this book were adopted by the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson Associates (JWT) to develop its first creative-planning tool, and remain influential in many creative fields.

Young’s book is based on the core belief that the production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of a car by means of an assembly line. The production of an idea involves five steps in a definite order. None of them is be taken before the preceding one is complete.

The first step involves gathering all the possible information related to the project at hand. The material collected could be specific to this particular project and also include anything that is broadly relevant to it. The second step involves trying to figure out various possible relationships that could exist between the pieces of information collected in the first step.

The third step of idea-generation proposed by Young’s book is a surprising one. During this step, one is asked to step out of the project and try to forget the problem that one is working on to the extent possible. It is like Sherlock Holmes stopping work in the middle of a case and dragging his aide Watson off to a concert.

The fourth step involves a breakthrough. This is when a ‘eureka moment’ occurs, often at a highly unexpected time, and an innovative idea pops up.

The fifth stage is where that innovative idea is chiselled out for practical usefulness.

The first, second and fifth stages of Young’s idea-generation process involve activities that are best done in a team set-up. Most organizations do a good job of these two steps of idea generation. The third and fourth steps, however, must be taken on an individual basis. In this crucial phase of the process, the information that was absorbed during the first two steps must be assimilated individually by the non-conscious mind—which is also the most efficient part—of the human brain.

The non-conscious brain works best when the conscious brain is relaxed. One may even be asleep. There are several examples that illustrate this. Niels Bohr first thought of the possible structure of an atom while watching a horse race. Issac Newton discovered the theory of gravitation not in his lab, as the legend goes, but while relaxing in his mother’s garden. Dmitri Mendeleev, who discovered the periodic table, August Kekulé, discoverer of the structure of the benzene atom, and Srinivasa Ramanujan, the famous mathematician, all came up with their innovative ideas in their sleep. Many corporate leaders, however, seem unaware of the third and fourth steps of idea generation. So they do not think it necessary to create opportunities for employees to step out of the problems they are working on.

James Webb Young’s book was ahead of its time. In the 1940s, the world was very much in the throes of the industrial economy, where it was the norm for workers to show up at factory gates for work that went on for a fixed period of time without much rest. Although the knowledge economy has become the most prominent part of global economic activity over the past few decades, most companies continue to behave like those of the industrial era. Exceptions have been few.

The covid pandemic has stimulated fresh thinking. During lockdowns, many a knowledge company realized that its employees could work from home without any drop in their productivity. Also, many former office-goers are loving the flexibility that working from home provides. Once the pandemic is over and kids start going back to school for physical attendance, one’s home will likely be an even more relaxed place to work.

In an office, when an employee wants a break from the problem she is working on, she can at best walk across to a coffee machine, meet a few colleagues and chat about something interesting. But if she is at home, she has many more ways to relax. She can take her dog for a walk, or pick up a favourite book, or put on her preferred music and cuddle up in a comfortable spot.

The five-step process of idea development outlined by Young involves intense conscious efforts at the team level and also non-conscious, relaxed activities at the individual level. Organizations must ensure that there is perfect coordination between team time and individual time. For this, companies need to make significant shifts in their employment policies. They will have to trust employees even more. They have to accept the fact that an employee who is taking her dog out for a walk is actually working hard to develop the next big innovative idea.

The traditional definitions of work hours and leisure time are fast getting blurred. And that’s good for value creation.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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