Thursday, January 26, 2006


On “Marketplace” the other day, an academic was talking about the latest round of layoffs at Ford. She mentioned that the danger in laying off so many people at once is that you become so thin-staffed at the operational level that the room for new ideas to germinate gets squeezed out. The organization gets better and better at doing the same old thing with fewer people, the market moves on, and it efficiencies itself right into oblivion.

It sounded familiar.

At a relatively ‘mature’ organization, the layers of bureaucratic goo encrusting even the simplest tasks thicken and harden almost imperceptibly over time, like sedimentary rock. When the sedimentation increases but the staffing decreases, you get some very harried people running around trying to remember which step is next, taking focus off the very real changes going on in the outside world.

When it’s time to cut costs, managers look for slack in the budget. In the short term, obviously, this makes sense. Over time, though, I can’t help but wonder.

No less an observer than Aristotle noted that contemplation requires leisure (which is why he wouldn’t let women, or slaves, or workers, vote – they don’t have the requisite leisure to discuss matters of public import). 3M famously tells its researches to set aside some of their time for projects of their own design and choosing, and supposedly some of its best breakthroughs came from that. Teens and twentysomethings produce many of the breakthroughs in culture and technology in part, I suspect, because they aren’t distracted by the obligations of real life: childcare, earning a living, etc. Even the idea of a ‘sabbatical’ derives from ‘sabbath,’ or time of rest, since it was thought that leisure is necessary to recharge the creative batteries. (These days, of course, sabbaticals have to be justified with projects. We don’t trust rest.)

I’ve noticed many of my best ideas come to me in the car. I think it’s because I’m not ‘on call’ in the car, so my mind can just go wherever it goes. In the office, it’s a stream of emergencies, purchase requisitions, and quotidian details. Faculty who can be brilliant in their own fields often appear organizationally illiterate, even after decades of working in the same place, because they just never bothered to learn the reasons behind the policies. I think it’s a form of self-defense, trying to preserve some free space for creative thought, but it looks horribly self-indulgent to those of us tasked with cleaning up the same old messes, over and over again. It’s understandable, if sometimes maddening.

Honestly, part of the appeal of blogging is that it’s outside the normal, well-worn daily grooves. In cyberspace, if not in the office, I can air out ideas and see what happens.

Even at the office, the best ideas seem to come when I go places I normally don’t. I’ve written before about ‘listening down,’ but listening sideways is good, too. The trick is in not confusing productive casting about with basic loafing. A nuanced appreciation of slack, if you will.

Where do you get your best ideas?