Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

More playtime needed for more productivity

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-02-23

A major problem with Australia’s future is that "management", the collective noun, show little or no appreciation of disciplines of the samed-name art.

While I’ll discuss specific flaws in future posts, I’ll concentrate on the fundamental problem of what most managers do: making people do what management wants them to do.

Too often managers act in ways that constrain the potential of staff, rather than unleash it.  Innovation, the sine qua non of economic development in developed economies, requires playtime, fooling about, shooting-the-breeze with people from other domains.

But it’s not just innovation that benefits from lots of playtime, as I’ll discuss later in this post.

Google is an excellent example of a company where management understands the issue.  Reliant on a continual flow of ideas, Google generates these not by having a specific department for R&D, but requiring all employees to spend a day a week mucking about, and provide staff with the requisite toys.  Google Docs, 411, Code, Earth, PageCreator, Trends: all are products from "playtime".

Google "gets it", either because the founders’ backgrounds in mathematics and academia gave them an intuitive understanding of how to harness ideas rather than tie people into a harness, or because they’ve seen the figures on payoffs from suggestion boxes.

Some companies pay every suggestion by employees at least $100.  They found that roughly 1 in 10 ideas is worth a close look, 1 in 100 provides some return when implemented, and 1 in 1000 generates blegabucks, a windfall.  Unless employees are encouraged to put forward ideas, guaranteed a reward for even those ideas that won’t work, they will not collect enough ideas to get that 1 in 1000 jackpot.

Such suggestions aren’t novel: the importance to productivity of letting people do what they want to do was described in Thomas More’s "Utopia" centuries ago.

In Utopia, people were ordered to perform tasks by town elders for only half of each working day.  The other half, the person could do whatever they liked, as long as it might prove productive in the long run:

  • Want to go to basketweaving class?  No problem: that’s a skill that might be useful in the community.
  • If your "job" is gardening, but you enjoy it so much you want to tidy up gardens for the rest of the day, that’s fine too.
  • Enjoy making music?  Spend half of your day making other people happy.
  • Play golf in those four hours?  No!  That will never have a payoff for the community.

More’s rule of 50% direction, 50% productive "playtime" also fits with analysis of hunter-gatherer societies.  Providing the necessities of life, food and shelter, takes these societies about 4 hours a day.

In our modern society, we spend much more than half our time putting food on the table and a roof over our heads.  How many people work overtime (often unpaid), clocking up 50 or 60 hours a week on average, then go home and have to do even more (unpaid) labor gathering and preparing food or other necessary domestic chores?

Those considerations don’t even include the damage done by stress-linked diseases, the result of wage-slavery and the lack of time spent doing something that makes you feel useful to the community.

How could we move to such balance of directed and undirected productive effort by the population?  I don’t know, but we won’t get there with the current model of capitalism.  Perhaps there is another model, perhaps with modified capitalist elements?

So… who has the time to toy around with ideas and figure out a solution?


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