Innovation Dilemma

Does boredom spur creation?

By Michael Beygelman 
In his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton M. Christensen makes an interesting observation about the study of genetics. Better to look at fruit flies than humans, he says, because the insects are conceived, born, mature, and die all within a single day—by definition yielding more robust intergenerational samples than man, whose generations turn over every 30 years or so.
More importantly, Christensen goes on to define the difference between sustaining innovation, which represents small improvements over previous products (or technologies or ideas), and disruptive innovation, which is a force that topples market leaders. Many organizations are suffering from a lack of both sustaining and disruptive innovations, and some of these challenges can be traced back to how these organizations go about attracting, engaging, and motivating their workforces.
The notion of generations coming along every 30 years or so resonates today because we are currently living through an historic societal shift. The challenges that organizations are experiencing are partially fueled by their relentless drive to maximize productivity and completely consume every minute of our day with tasks that are at least perceived as productive. Those challenges are also partially the result of what we choose to do with our own time. Let’s face it, most of us spend our free time either staring at a 55” flat panel TV (or iPad or Kindle or Nook or iPhone), or listening to music on our iPods. I am reminded of a piece Scott Adams wrote in The Wall Street Journal on the benefits of—cough—boredom. The article points out, and some experts suggest, that our brains need boredom in order to process ideas and spur creativity.
The innovation dilemma that companies are facing is centered on how to create a workplace environment that supports the company’s culture and ideals, attracts the most relevant talent while maximizing employee productivity, yet at the same time encourages down time for people to, well, be bored (creative) and come up with ideas. Creating or even mandating free time in the workplace might seem like a radical idea, and certainly a potentially tough topic to take up with the CEO of an organization, but successes that have resulted from adopting these somewhat radical measures are well documented.
Companies that build their cultures around innovation—3M and Google come to mind—offer their employees blocks of free time to spend as they see fit, pursuing their own independent and unrestricted interests. The idea is that this kind of emotional and intellectual freedom might spawn unforeseen innovations. 3M hit it big with Post-it Notes being a byproduct of free time, and in more recent history Google’s move into what the company called “cloud” computing has disrupted the traditional computing paradigm; for the record, this project was part of a Google employee’s 20-percent free time.
HR and talent organizations within companies are suffering from some of the same challenges. We consume our recruitment departments with tasks that resemble
productivity, like our insatiable desire for dashboards, data, data, and more data. It’s as if being consumed with data is somehow going to make your job or employer brand become more attractive, or as if the pretty dashboard is somehow going to translate to a mobile recruitment strategy. Of course data is important, without debate, but what might be more important is some creativity and ideas that might help you fill your critical roles faster and with better caliber talent. For example, we as organizations philosophically agree that social media is reshaping our society and that it is imperative for recruitment to embrace social media, yet we develop policies that curtail the usage of social media in the workplace.
Transparency has become a societal norm, and your employees’ ability to freely share information across the digital domain will without a doubt help to foster creativity. Reducing non-strategic tasks that consume employees’ time is another step that can help create a culture of creativity.
The question that HR organizations have to ask themselves is whether or not the increasing workload and tasks that we’re placing on our recruitment departments are actually leading to an unpredictably better outcome or a more predictable mediocre outcome. If you believe the latter is true within your organization, perhaps it is time that you take a walk down to the CEO’s office and have a conversation with him or her about sustaining and disruptive innovation, and how these two outcomes are linked to increased employee free time.

Michael Beygelman is the global practice leader and president, North America RPO, at Adecco Group. He can be reached at

Tags: Consultants & Advisors, HRO Today Global, Professional Contribution

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