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John Addis

SmartCompany /

Innovation and invention cannot be prescribed, which is why Google engineers spend 20% of their time on projects that interest them, no strings attached. So what’s stopping you?

Gelignite, Viagra and Post-it notes

In 1895 Gillette invented the world’s first safety razor. Just over 20 years later came a razor specifically for women. About 45 years after that my father pointed what was probably the family Austin A40 towards Harmondsworth, then a rural outpost in Middlesex, England, and headed off to his first day at work with the company.

He’d returned to a place just a few miles from where he was born via Durham in north-east England, where he’d studied physics, and Sheffield, where he’d settled with my mother, in a caravan, and had me. But the frozen pipes and chilling wind were too much for my mother. After seeing the neighbours’ caravan blow over and roll down the hill, she’d had enough. The southerner wanted to stay up north, but the northerner wanted to head down south.

And that’s how my father found himself alongside his new boss in a very well equipped lab in Gillette’s new premises in Harmondsworth, Middlesex.

“Now son, you’ve got a lab with all the toys you could wish for and £5000 to play with. Just fiddle around and see what you come up with.”

I’ve always marvelled at the latitude offered to such a young bloke (he was then in his twenties) but also the trust shown in him. Most of all, though, I’m impressed by the understanding of scientific discovery my father’s boss demonstrated in his light-hearted direction.

Innovation and invention cannot be prescribed. We cannot know what we will find when we set out on an endeavour. Indeed, to set an objective is almost to miss the point. As Louis Pasteur said: “In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.” By being fixated on our destination we risk missing the very things that should pique our interest along the way, the things that make the journey worthwhile.

Gelignite, Viagra, Post-it notes, LSD and Sri Lanka were just some of the things that were discovered along the way, the last example being the source of the term that describes a lucky discovery – Serendip, one of Sri Lanka’s former names, locates the origin of the word “serendipity”.

In our homogenised, goal-oriented world, where every dollar is given for a purpose, spent with an objective, and accounted for with zealous scrutiny, there doesn’t seem much space for serendipity. The bean counters have had their way, trapping us within the cells of a spreadsheet. We can’t just “fiddle around” and see what we “come up with”.

Except in Mountain View, California. Google engineers have something called 20% time. For one day a week, or however the employee wants to organise it, engineers are encouraged to work on something that interests them. The idea need not have immediate commercial potential, it just has to interest someone enough for them to devote 20% of their working time to. Froogle was one of the first Google products to have originated in 20% time but there have been others.

Even more encouraging is the attitude that Google management applies to 20% time. As Joe Beda, a Google engineer, states on eightypercent.net:

“There isn’t really official tracking of this sort of thing. It really comes down to trust of the employee. At the end of the day (or year) you have to list what you’ve accomplished for your review. If you’ve wasted your time then you have nothing to talk about on your review. Keep in mind that failures aren’t the same as doing nothing – valuable knowledge is gained.”

My father told me that after a year in the lab, he hadn’t really come up with anything earth-shattering. I think he thought of that as a failure but I suspect his boss was aware that even when you fail, you learn to discriminate between what’s important and what’s not; every failure makes a slight dent in the vast landscape of the undiscovered.

So how might this amble over the land of Serendip apply to your business? Perhaps we need to learn more about creating an environment in which people are encouraged to fail; perhaps we should think less about leading and more about being led; perhaps the visibility of our own creativity and determination causes others to hide theirs; perhaps we are too focused.

Remember that this isn’t just about the future of Post-it notes and Viagra. It’s about the future per se. And it’s about whether you can let go.

See top entrepreneurs explain: Learning how to let go

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