· 3 min read · Features

Coming up with ideas isnt as easy as you think


Companies dont really want employees to think, says Richard Donkin. Thinking looks too much like taking it easy

A few days ago someone telephoned and asked me to lunch. This happens all the time. There seems to be a popular belief that anything is possible if discussed over a good lunch, particularly with a journalist.

The caller was interested to know whether I wanted to join a think tank on human resources and general management. There would be some high-powered CEOs, various figures from among the great and the good and me.

It sounded flattering and I suppose that was the idea. There was a sticky silence before I asked, Do I get paid for this?

Well that wasnt the general idea, said the caller. We were after a meeting of minds, nothing too onerous and there would be reports and commentary on things, all good stuff. There might be a possibility of something but... his voice trailed away into the ether.

I felt quite bad about discussing payment but I dont think as a distraction from my day job. I think for a living and I dont need a tank in which to think. I need a deckchair. Thinking for a living, particularly when you think alone is a great way to earn your crust theoretically. You can do it anywhere and you can do it while mowing the lawn, showering or walking the dog.

In practice, however, thinking is not a good way to make money, particularly in a systems-driven office. Its not easy to do. Just try it. See how long you can sit there at your desk just thinking. See how long it takes before someone comes and starts a conversation or dumps some work on your desk or asks you what you are doing. The chances are that you would have cracked before any of these things happened because you would feel uncomfortable. We all know that thinking can look a little bit like taking it easy.

We could be thinking of anything. The brain sits beyond the reach of outside supervision, suspended in bone and gristle, as inanimate as a potato. It behaves like a potato too sometimes. Locked into processes, it becomes mashed and fluffy.

A big problem with thinking about our work is that it can lead to ideas and ideas are not always welcome. Frederick Taylor, the so-called father of scientific management, did all that he could to reduce thinking on the job. He told the shop-floor workers at the Midvale steel company in Philadelphia that they were not employed to use their brains. I have you for your strength and mechanical ability and we have other men paid for thinking, he told Charles Shartle, one of his engineers. Shartle left and set up a successful manufacturing business based on his ideas and inventions.

Yes, I know, this was all a long time ago. Companies want innovation and creativity these days, dont they? Im not so sure. Most of the companies I have encountered want their employees to be doing things. Employees know this so they make themselves visible. Managers rush around answering phones, joining meetings, making appointments and filling holes in the diary. Their body language says it all: look at me; look how busy I am; boy, do I earn my money.

But when you are paid to do things, rather than think, you end up doing things you shouldnt be doing, simply because you think you should be doing something. It happens at the very top of companies.

Youre the boss. You have run out of ideas about how to grow the company. Whats worse is that you are being beaten out of sight by a smaller competitor who is doing things you would have done had you thought about it. So you call your competitor and say, What about a merger? After all, thats doing something. Your competitor is running out of ideas too and recognises, just as you did, that merging is something to do. You could add all your customers together and service them with fewer people than you had in two companies. It makes so much sense.

So you merge and get rid of people and your service begins to suffer because those who remain are having to work harder than ever to handle the larger customer base. They are far too busy doing things to have any ideas.

Then someone on the outside who has spent a lot of time thinking about how badly your business is run it could be a former employee gets an idea and takes it to the venture capitalists. Within five years he has taken most of your customers and the merger has been exposed as a big waste of time. Whod have thought it?


Richard Donkin is employment columnist at the Financial Times