How to amp up creative thinking on the job

For many people in the federal government and private sector alike, the workday is a constant stream of data in and decisions out. Time to pause and reflect is limited or unavailable. Days start early and end late.

Management consultant Daniel Patrick Forrester believes that is a bad way to run a business or an agency. In his new book, “Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization,” Forrester presents organizations and individuals who build time into their days for simply thinking.

Forrester recently discussed the book’s major themes with News Editor Michael Hardy.

Why we never pause to reflect

The first thing I think of is this sort of human need that we have to be biased toward action. And that concept of being biased toward action has roots tied to management thinking in the 1980s. In other words, effective people have a bias toward getting things done. I think that is true, and that remains true. In other words, you cannot think all day.

But the bias toward action today is manifesting itself in a lot of different behaviors that are bordering sometimes almost on addiction. I used as one of the symbols of that in the book this idea of the digital world that we live in, the connected world that we live in, that creates what I describe as a responsiveness narrative that makes action bias look like it is the only play you can make in a situation.

It seems like we all have to make immediate decisions. It seems like we all don’t have time to think things through. And the reality is that the human mind is actually incapable of doing the multitasking that is given us in the context of so many of our jobs today. So from action bias to what I call the myth of multitasking, we have been fed a narrative that says great decisions can be made constantly in the immediacy of now.

What Google could learn from Whirlpool

Google is celebrated for the 20 percent of the work week that they enable their technology team to self-direct and literally drive their thinking toward whatever project is of most interest. It creates a wonderful sense of autonomy.

But I juxtapose Google in the book with another company that most people would not put in the same category: Whirlpool. They spend about 20 percent of their teams’ time on what they call the innovation agenda. Both [are] great, powerful examples, both [are] carving out time to think and do reflection inside some structured environment. But what Whirlpool has done vs. Google is that they’ve put more of a tapestry on top of it, more of an architecture, including a set of quality gates that will enable an idea to go from big, bold thinking or big idea all the way through the executive lens that constantly peers down and asks great questions.

In the end, Whirlpool is keenly interested in whether or not [an idea] is going to have a positive impact on their balance sheet and whether or not it can accelerate their desire to be market-makers in the world of appliances. Google, on the other hand, has had huge amounts of press and lots of goodwill that has come from so many of their think-time projects, including their desire to scan every book in the world.

The question is, as you get bigger — and Google is 26,000 people now — how do you create some sort of common language around thinking? My sense after writing this book is that self-directed think time inside a company that is expected to nurture big ideas can be somewhat dangerous and get to an outcome that may be less optimal.

Google promised the world that they were going to do a lot of innovative projects that would not necessarily drive revenue and outcome. But I think what you are seeing now as some people choose to stay with the firm or leave the firm is whether or not they feel their ideas can get heard by the most senior level. And I think that [new Google CEO Larry Page] is stepping up to that moment because he has to create an architecture that allows a big idea to bubble up as Whirlpool really does.

Letting your thoughts gallop

Jeff Hoffman, one of the founders of Priceline.com, does an exercise in the morning [that he calls] making time to wonder. He wonders about trends that are happening in the world. He wonders why the keywords that are being searched on Google are what they are at that moment. And he says that on any one day, it might not amount to much, it just might be some noise and some data points he writes in his notebook, but over time, he allows that to gallop.

He uses each morning to create new assimilations in his mind, and he realizes once the day gets going, the ability to have your subconscious percolate an idea or make an association to get to a breakthrough does not necessarily happen when you are constantly tethered to the technology or when your day is so busy you cannot carve out [time]. So at an individual level, [such an approach] can have a huge amount of utility, particularly, I think, if you hold the morning time more sacred than many do.

[Group brainstorming is] what I call not group think but group reflection. And what is that? That is the art of allowing a group of people to almost create a consciousness as a group in which there is a bit of a social contract in the ways that people handle each other, treat each other and more importantly what they do with an idea. [It] is nurtured and passed around, not judged so much — questioned for sure, but not judged in terms of immediate efficacy.

But [we need to] create capacity for leaders to do that. And by the way, you can’t ever get group reflection when 50 percent of the room is naively attempting multitasking. Laptops are up, and BlackBerrys are on. Let’s assume that [technology] is out of the room. But when you get in the moments of group reflection, you can get through different breakthroughs and different outcomes.

The cost of high productivity

We’re coming off the tail end of a recession here, and if you were inside companies and organizations that were going through massive layoffs amidst the great uncertainty that we had, it would seem that your best play would be to not complain about that kind of thing, to not complain about being on call 24/7.

American productivity, even in this recession, went up. I think we are pushing people to an edge that we haven’t seen in the arc of American business history. I am fairly convinced of it actually. In other words, this idea that you can take someone and work 12 or 15 hours and expect high outcome and high productivity and at the same time the nurturing of the big ideas that would help you to get through the next recession or diversify your services and products within a recession — I think that that is a naive idea.

The 11-minute interruption

I have stopped using instant messaging. My conclusion was that there were many ways to get hold of me. I have e-mail, I have a cell phone, and I am pretty good at face-to-face. So you know you have three channels to meet me.

And once I read the data point that [when] you interrupt me, if I am in the middle of something profound, it could take me 11 minutes to recover from that interruption, I have also become more respectful of how I don’t interrupt other people. This is not just about me, this is about me showing respect on my teams and in the spaces I go to. When folks are in the middle of a dialogue, my simple: “Hey, how’s it going?” could be interrupting the limited moment of thinking that they are going to get in the course of a day. So it has taught me to respect it more.

I also find myself...trying to hold [mornings] sacred, and I’m moving toward doing a little bit more of what Jeff Hoffman talks about, wondering and making different assimilations.

I had never taken seven weeks off from a company before in my life, [but I did it] to write the first overview of the [book] manuscript. When I did it, I went to live at a friend of mine’s home, and it was one of the most humbling moments in my life because I realized that I had all this research that I had done, all these interviews, all this data, and I had no connectivity to the Internet in the house that I was in — and it was really wonderful.

Unplugging from that made me realize that when I focused, in 12 hours, what I was able to come out with was something that most people aspire to. In seven weeks, I was able to at least draft out the underpinnings of the architecture of the think time.

[It] taught me that when I truly focus in short bursts of time and I hold it sacred for two, three hours at a clip, which I now do more frequently, I am able to produce more thinking that has the ability to be further ahead than most people in conversation, and then I can bring people along to it.

But if I short-change that, I do not ever get to the breakthrough. I am right there on the edge and I think I am relevant, but I have learned that relevance involves also stepping back to be reflective, and so it has taught me a little control. Am I perfect at it? No.

Pre-disaster reflection

Take a look at the last chapter of the book where [global investor] Kyle Bass, David Walker [former U.S. comptroller general and now CEO of the Comeback America Initiative] and I were talking about this simple idea — and [yet] it’s not a simple idea. We’re getting really good at reflection after a catastrophe.

After [Hurricane Katrina], after the financial implosion, after the Deep Water Horizon [oil rig disaster], inevitably we stand up these commissions that become bodies of reflection. Shouldn’t that make us all pause and think: How do we as leaders create into the tapestry of our days the ability to think and reflect, such that those reports become shorter or even leave this Earth? Why is reflection a habitual routine after the worst has happened?

I think that is very telling and leaders have to take something from that. It should be telling us that we should move it upstream [and] think through the downside beforehand.

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Reader comments

Mon, Jun 6, 2011

My team and I have all described "shower moments" - Ideas that popped into our heads while we were in the shower. This reflecting thing really does work. Just not on cue.

Fri, May 27, 2011

Shhh! My boss is still trying to figure out why they don't use the same form that he used to use in 1980.

Thu, May 19, 2011 Vic

May have missed the mark. The best way to amp up creative thinking is to let it come to fuition - accomplishment reinforces the behavior. And yeah, what may be at the root of SOTEC's rash is a management structure that quashes creativity instead of valuing it.

Thu, May 19, 2011 SOTE Contractor Federal Agency

If you want government to be creative AND successful, make them listen and learn from those scum-of-the-earth underlings that really know how to do these things, rather than letting inexperienced beauracrats use their airline magazine research to determine project plans and leave it to the underlings to clean up the mess and make it work.

Thu, May 19, 2011 KT

was it sunny out ?

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