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March 11, 2013
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in·no·va·tion (noun) – the introduction of something new; a new idea, method or device

Yahoo recently grabbed headlines when CEO Marissa Mayer announced a new policy where employees would no longer be permitted to work from home.  The internet was ablaze with opinions.  The pundits of the world were in shock, as Yahoo was bucking a trend that had been growing since internet access became easily available in homes in the late 1990’s.  These critics argued that Yahoo was eliminating a job benefit that many employees savor.  Doom and gloom has been predicted, as critics contend that the very talent that Yahoo needs to survive will now flee to other companies where the flexibility to work from home can be found.

The leaked Yahoo memo to employees referenced the importance of communication, collaboration, and the need to be working side-by-side especially in highly creative, technical and collaborative endeavors.  It went on further to state that “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”  Reading between the lines, I believe the environment that Ms. Mayer is targeting is one that breeds innovation.  Yahoo was once an innovator.  They were the darling of the search engine, the web portal, the content hub. Then as time passed, the innovation waned, and focus shifted to executing on what Yahoo already had in place.  Yahoo effectively became stale as other companies, like Google, led the next wave of innovation.  In fact, Google, Ms. Mayer’s former employer, dedicates upwards of 20% of their employees’ work week for innovation time.  Many of Google’s products are a result of this innovation time.  When Google CFO Patrick Pichette was asked about working from home, his response was rather telling:  “The surprising question we get is: ‘How many people telecommute at Google?’ And our answer is: ‘As few as possible’ … There is something magical about sharing meals. There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer ‘What do you think of this?’ These are [the] magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of your company, of your own personal development and [of] building much stronger communities.”

For sure, there are numerous benefits to be had in allowing employees to work from home.  Kenway’s own CEO, Brian King, highlighted these benefits and the challenges in a prior article, Home from Work.  When these challenges threaten the culture and survival of an organization, changes must be made.  If Ms. Mayer’s intent is in fact to create a culture that strives for innovation, I applaud her.  America has been the most prosperous nation in history because of its innovative spirit.  Some of the most successful companies in history have also been the most innovative.  Surely, there are companies that have shied away from innovation, instead ruthlessly focusing on execution and productivity.  Many of these companies have achieved great success.  However, that success is often short lived and frequently in peril.  As highlighted in a recent Forbes article, Dell is a company that literally ignored innovation.  It was a super star at execution.  But because Dell depended on its supplier’s innovation, when its suppliers missed the mobile tidal wave, it was left holding the bag in a shrinking PC market.  Sales and profits are in a downward spiral, and Dell has been unable to execute its way out of trouble.

It is with this innovative spirit in mind that Kenway Consulting has rolled out “Theta Groups.”  The name refers to the theta brainwaves that are responsible for profound creativity, insight, and inspiration – see the Kenway newsletter article “Breaking Away in Order to Move Forward” for more details on theta brainwaves.  In Kenway’s new model, all employees are members of a small team.  These Theta Groups meet regularly, in person, to focus on innovation, among other things.  Even before this concept was formalized, it was happening on its own.  Groups of employees were meeting to share ideas.  The innovative juices began to flow, and several ideas would be bounced around, taking many different shapes, eventually snowballing into something truly innovative.  And while I understand, there is a place for working from home, I question its value when innovation is in focus.  Innovation doesn’t happen naturally when it is forced over email, IM, or planned over WebEx, or another medium.  Innovation happens collaboratively and in person.  It happens when you can read the expression of your colleagues, and match it to the tone in their voice.  It happens when you can quickly point to something physical.  Some of the great innovation stories in history may have taken place in someone’s garage.  And they didn’t happen over WebEx.

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