At the height of the last economic bubble, bankers on a perceived hot streak and buttressed by complex risk mitigation strategies, often proffered once pithy truisms like, “a rolling loan, gathers no loss.” At the heart of that statement sits the idea that a loan (healthy, toxic or otherwise) passed with speed from one bank to another, like an adult version of hot potato, would never yield a loss. That money machine truism died along with the behaviors of millions who marketed, bought and sold mortgage contracts. Bankers were not alone in all of this. Millions failed to consider the implications of taking on so much personal debt; few acknowledged that there was any ceiling on the value of a house. The downside was not thoroughly considered and rationalizations abounded. We are now in midst of a coordinated global response to the ongoing fallout from the financial crisis. Governments, companies and individuals are clamoring for more action and better responses so that we can quickly recover.
Having a healthy bias towards action seems like the natural response to addressing the endless complexities facing organizations today. Inaction can create instant market winners and losers. But sometimes our best move may be to stay put. For example, consider professional soccer goalies defending against penalty kicks. Are they better off lunging to the right or the left? A recent study by a team of economists asked, what is the best strategy for stopping the ball? It turns out that staying in the center instead of jumping to the right or left is the best “move” a goalie can make. Dive to the left and you have a 14.2 percent chance of stopping the ball. Dive right and you have a 12.6 percent chance of stopping the ball. Stay in the center and it’s a 33.3 chance of stopping the ball. Yet in reality goalies stayed in the center a mere 6.3 percent of the time. Why would they do that? It seems that a rolling goal tender still gathers a pay check.
Over twenty-five years ago business gurus were extolling the value of “action bias” as American companies searched for better ways to compete with Japan. Yet, layer in complexity and technology, and action bias today takes on a whole new meaning. Cutting edge experimentation, innovation and basic follow through have been upended by people immersing themselves in multiple communication channels cascading with data from Tweets on Twitter to incessant email use. The arrival of each new electronic message has become a digital proxy for the sound of a bell once used by a Dr. named Pavlov.
There is nothing wrong with technology and the amazing connectivity that it facilitates for the good of all of us. Our challenge over this next uncertain decade is to ensure that the use of technology sits within an organizational context where allowing time to think and reflect holds as much weight as time spent responding to the rapid pace of life and work. Author and trend analyst of global trends Van Wishard told me, “with the speed of technology and life today, what becomes even clearer over time is that we live in two worlds: a world of data and a world of meaning.” These days we struggle to stay on top of all the data; what we need to stay on top of even more is meaning. Sadly, meaning gets pushed aside and kicked down the road for a day of thinking that rarely if ever arrives.
In an ongoing study of the behaviors of thousands of knowledge workers, independent research firm Basex, uncovered that 28% of our days are spent responding to interruption and distraction. In contrast to “productive content generation” and “attending meetings”, their study alarmingly reveals that we spend no more than 5-10% of our days “thinking and reflecting.” It’s only within moments of think time and reflection that we ever step back to see all the data that surrounds us in a tapestry of new ideas and insights that lead to innovation. Reflection is on life support and that hurts innovation, output and the recovery.
General David Petraeus told me that “the first job of a leader is to ensure that you get the ‘big ideas’ right.” Petraeus explained that “big ideas — the overarching concepts that guide an organization — don’t hit you on the head like Newton’s apple, fully formed. Rather, they accumulate over time and develop through continued study, reflection, and discussion with others.” Organizations like Whirlpool Corporation and the United States Army have think time and reflection built into their decision-making architectures. None of these entities can simply unplug from the daily onslaught of data but all are capable of methodically stepping back and working on root causes that question fundamental assumptions so that big and small ideas can emerge. In the wake of the recent economic crisis and geopolitical tumult we must study how these entities embrace think time as an imperative as their relevance and sustainability are not in question.
It was said that Thomas Edison would often take his fishing rod, sit at the end of the pier, cast away, and then just sit there for hours. However, he would never put any bait on his hook. He didn’t really want to catch any fish. What he wanted to do was to sit there uninterrupted, just reflecting on the issues of the day, on his work, or on whatever else came into his mind. He knew that if he looked as if he were fishing, no one would bother him, so he could reflect uninterrupted. All he really wanted to do was catch ideas. Edison signed many pictures for friends and admirers filled with the visionary’s advice. To one friend he said, “All things come to him who hustles while he waits. Your friend, Thomas Edison.”
As we pause ever so slightly at the end of one year and the beginning of another give yourself permission to stop, think and reflect. Imagine a whole day with no immediacy and no email where you can let your mind wander to deeply consider your work, behaviors, dreams and aspirations. If you create some white space, you will quickly discover new ideas and potential outcomes that are rarely if ever born within the incessant flow and immediacy of our busy, busy days. Just think about it before the next one hundred emails derail the benefits of reflection and push you to work on someone else’s big idea.
Daniel Patrick Forrester, author of Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization, is a management consultant with over fifteen years experience leading complex strategy and technology evolution engagements for senior executives from Fortune 100 and 500 companies, and federal government organizations. Current and past clients include: Verizon, Sallie-Mae, Sprint, Dow Chemical, FMC Corporation, The Department of Homeland Security, The Library of Congress, The Congressional Research Service, and the United States Marine Corps. Forrester is frequently in demand as a public speaker at organizations such as The Brookings Institute and the top-ranked Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. He is currently a Director and Executive within Sapient Government Services, a subsidiary of Sapient Corporation.