On Monday of this week The Independent published a long article on the story behind graphene, the new material that could literally revolutionise the way we communicate and do things. If you are keen on learning more about graphene the web is absolutely teeming with information on the topic, from theory to possible practice, so I won’t mention the details. But the potential of this material is so huge that even in these times of austerity the UK government has actively supported the creation of a National Graphene Institute to the tune of several millions.
The point of the article in The Independent, however, was a simple one: graphene was discovered by scientists who had been able to “play” together, speculatively, with some sellotape and graphite. Graphene isn’t the only invention that came about in response to our innate ludic instinct. Some of our most important inventions came about not through hard graft (that came later) but serendipity.
Over the last two decades or so we have experienced a lull in scientific and technological innovation (the Internet is way older than that and so are the basic tenets behind mobile communications). I am certain that this is due to at least two factors. The first is that we have become accustomed to being ruled by bean counters, obsessed with immediate or very short term returns and for whom anything that wouldn’t bring a quick buck was always anathema. The second is that a business culture of excessive controls has been prevailing. With some notable exceptions a large majority of today’s high level business managers are control freaks, obsessed with putting in place tighter and more stringent procedures aimed at ensuring that every second of a worker’s time is spent achieving maximum returns on investment, as well as other diktats. However, by suppressing the innate creativity that is inextricably linked to the mystery of humanity and hiding it behind a sea of red tape, innovation has got killed off (and it’s doubtful that real productivity has increased either).
Take for example the recent news that the new boss of Yahoo has decreed that none of their employers would be allow to work remotely. You don’t need to be an Internet business insider to know that Yahoo is dead meat. They have been unable to reinvent themselves and innovate. Nobody really knows what the company stands for (email? search engine? advertising?). However, instead of fostering innovation by freeing people to invent and innovate they have decided to lock them up (back to control freakery). This will inevitably achieve the opposite effect. So I predict that in less than a decade Yahoo will just be history. But in the meantime, someone else, playing with their computer, maybe with the help of a few friends, would have probably come across something with the potential of changing our lives.
Do you really want your business to be at the cutting edge? Give your people time to be themselves, don’t suppress inquisitiveness, nurture it, and mind that playfulness can quite often be the root of great creative potential.