Part of the NOBA team was recently invited to participate in a workshop with the board of a large company. The expected outcome of the session was a roadmap with several ideas to address a concern within the company which required creative solutions. As is common in many of these workshops, we took out pens, paper and, most importantly “sticky notes”. Upon seeing the latter, the company’s CEO mockingly made a remark to get all his colleagues to agree “not pos-it notes again”. The room let out a half-laugh as we ignored the comment and proceeded with the workshop.
The reaction is one that has become commonplace in many organizations. Following a boom of hackathons, creatathons and “Design Thinking” workshops, frustration has set in at the seemingly little impact created. As is common in such fads, the pendulum in companies seems to be swinging back to skepticism and focus on “the real issues”. In this new trend, ““post-it-fatigue” has set in, and some people are pointing the finger on the harmless piece of office supply.
In reality, the humble post-it note and the “workshop” format are not really the culprits. There are a great variety of factors which explain the poor results obtained in many organizations. Corporate processes, cowardice, a culture of boss-pleasing and appointing the wrong people to the job are probably higher up on the list. However, the legacy from design-thinking-mania seems to be to look at the workshop and the post-it note with skepticism.
Of course, ideas are really not worth much and there are many other considerations that are key to successful ventures, as we often argue in this blog. Nevertheless, in organizations, the sticky note is the starting point for a pipeline of innovation that should be constantly flowing. Frustration is a very likely outcome, but we should expect at the very beginning of the pipeline.
And we are in desperate need of good ideas. Despite common belief, innovation is at an all-time low, and this has a real impact in progress and people’s lives.
One measure for innovation used by economists is the impact on productivity. The impact that cool tech, tools and gadgets have on the economy is that per one unit of labour and capital (the main factors of production), we should be able to get more. This “productivity” then is reflected on worker’s wages. For example, if one worker is able to produce 5 pencils in an hour but then is trained to use a machine that will help produce 50 pencils and hour, in ideal conditions, his or her wage should increase tenfold in ideal market conditions.
It turns out that this number has been stalling over the past few decades, even in the age of tech and “productivity tools” such as Slack and Asana. “I see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics,” famously remarked Robert Solow in 1987, the Nobel laureate responsible for identifying the impact of technology on the economy.
If technology is what has an impact on growth, ironically, it is not usually those involved in hard core research and development who are responsible for the transformation. Some economists point out that only 8% of business ideas are created by scientists. The remaining 92% of business ideas is by entrepreneurial types, people with no real scientific background but who know the market and are able to identify problems and apply solutions. Those are the people who should be found in companies and in board rooms.
The humble post-it is actually a great illustration of this very same phenomenon. The technology behind it – the sticky stuff – was created by a scientist within 3M’s headquarters, Dr. Spencer Silver. It wasn’t until another colleague, Stephen Fry (a scientist himself but acting in the capacity of entrepreneur) realized the potential to bookmark his hymn book that the technology was converted into a business category that generates $1 billion annually.
Today, the sticky note is just another tool in the office supply store. It’s what we do with it that counts. Statistics say we are not doing enough, and that, we cannot afford.