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Halt and catch fire

Joe Benesh is a senior architect with Shive-Hattery and President + CEO of the Ingenuity Company, a strategic planning, diagramming, framework development, and design thinking consulting firm.

Halt and Catch Fire (HCF) is a command given to a computer to cause the processor to have an unrecoverable error and require a full restart. I do a fair amount of research into the concepts behind technology and software development and its corresponding history and genealogy. It is interesting to me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how it runs parallel to emerging concepts in strategy and organizational design thinking.

Gmail, one of Google’s flagship products, was developed during something called 20 percent time. This is the use of 20 percent of employees' time at work to develop projects based on individual interests or strengths that are related to core business practices in some fashion. Although this is a concept often attributed to Google, it started and was utilized much earlier, at places like HP, Lockheed, 3M, and Westinghouse.

1cf41fdd512dfe87638af3156cb9ed0aWestinghouse, which is now known mostly for kitchen appliances, did a substantial amount of work for the space program in the 1960s. Westinghouse gave engineers dedicated project work, but also allowed 10-15 percent of their time as “free inventing” time. A product of this “free inventing” time was the magnetic space boot, developed by an engineer who was not working on the space program equipment in any way but had an interest and found personal satisfaction in solving this specific problem -- developing a boot that worked better than the existing versions at that time.

I like to think there are two types of interaction with strategic processes as they relate to specific outcomes. There is hedonic strategy, or strategy that deals in the idealistic or visionary strategies that result in dynamic and large scale, transformative outcomes. Then there is utilitarian strategy, which deals in more structured and smaller scale change. I find a mix of these two results in the best, most balanced outcomes – a mix of the aspirational and the Spartan.

The two concepts introduced above are intrinsically linked in my mind, and are mutualistic. When people within organizations find satisfaction in what they are doing, they become more invested in it. Often that means providing a framework for innovation, inventiveness, and flexibility. The space boot was a by-product of the fulfillment of a hedonic work dimension created by “free inventing” time. Gmail was also. So were Post-It notes. The Sony PlayStation. Even the now ubiquitous “Like” button was created in this type of “free invention” time.

Oddly, HCF is not a real instruction – and the “catch fire” was a reference to the cessation of the computer’s ability to function, for emphasis. Though the actual percentage may vary, if you remove artificial HCF barriers by creating the ability for individuals to create projects, processes, and tactical artifacts for your company that illustrate its unique abilities and talents, something new and unexpected will likely emerge (and the time could potentially pay for itself and more, beyond the dividends in employee satisfaction).

By creating an environment to achieve satisfaction in a strategic sense, you will likely have more fulfilled employees, balanced levels of engagement, and growth in more sustainable ways. And you may even find yourself in a position to offer new goods or services that you would not have previously imagined.

 For more information:Joe _Benesh_2011

 Contact: joe@ingenuitycompany.com

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