Imagine Noah was once again building an ark (we have been getting quite a bit of rain in the Midwest). And instead of taking two of each animal, he showed up at your office and said, “I’m taking two of each type of worker. Please pair up as I call your type and walk onto the ark: administrative assistants–those who do most of another person’s work; information technologists–those who understand that there really are such things as dumb questions; human resource managers–those who know lots of other people’s secrets but can only tell their spouse or partner.”
This continues until Noah’s last call, “thinkers: those who think before they react to everything that comes there way.” Would anyone in your office get on? Or would they be too busy checking the Facebook page of that Noah guy?
With an avalanche of information and data at our fingertips, it’s easy to succumb to the waves of reactivity. Much of it is well intentioned. We want to be good team players. We want to support the needs of our colleagues. We want to be responsive to customers. Unfortunately, all that good intention is often laced with a lack of discipline, turning our days into a series of firefighting, aimless action and off-task wastes of time.
A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review showed that the more workers switched tasks during the day in a reactive manner, the less they accomplished. Workers that had double the number of task switches (email to phone, phone to report, report to meeting, etc.) were a whopping 9 times less productive then their counterparts. Multi-tasking may make you feel like you’re getting more done, but research shows that’s a comfortable delusion.
There are three ways to increase your effectiveness and efficiency when it comes to thinking before reacting:
1. Individual Think Time. You’re busy. Really busy. No time to think. It’s the most common challenge I hear in strategy workshops. But the great leaders don’t find time to think. They create it. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner recently wrote, “If you were to see my calendar, you’d probably notice a host of time slots greyed out but with no indication of what’s going on. There is no problem with my Outlook or printer. The grey sections reflect ‘buffers,’ or time periods I’ve purposely kept clear of meetings. In aggregate, I schedule between 90 minutes and two hours of these buffers every day. Over time, I realized not only were these breaks important, they were absolutely necessary in order for me to do my job.”
Notice he doesn’t consider individual think time as a “nice-to-have.” He says think time is “…absolutely necessary in order for me to do my job.” You may be thinking, “Sure, that’s easy for the CEO, because, after all, he’s the CEO. But that would never fly for me in my company.” Well it should as long as you don’t work for a buffoon. But for those of you that still aren’t sure, start small. Schedule 15 minutes after lunch on Friday to sit with a pen and notebook or tablet computer and start jotting down ideas about your business: What’s worked well recently? Why? How is your competition changing? What strengths should you be using more in your job? What should you stop doing because it’s no longer bringing value? What does your “not-to-do” list have on it?
2. Team Think Time. Let’s play a word association game. I say “up,” you say, “down.” I say, “reality TV,” you say, “morons.” I say, “morons,” you say, “Congress.” You get the idea. I say, “strategic planning,” you’d say what? Some of the responses I’ve heard are: time-consuming, annual, PowerPoint decks, well intentioned, and not used.
One reason the term strategic planning has a lot of baggage is because it’s often poorly done. It shouldn’t be an annual dog-and-pony show preceded by weeks and weeks of work only to be filed away until next year. Strategy should be an ongoing conversation, not an event. Engage people in dynamic discussions of your key business issues framed by the appropriate questions and tools and you’ve immediately elevated the experience. Instead of a tactical, in-the-the weeds complaint-fest, you transform it into a real-time thinking session where the focus is on people’s ideas, not a slide deck.
Once again, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner shares his thoughts on team think time: “Thinking, if done properly, requires uninterrupted focus; thoroughly developing and questioning assumptions; synthesizing all of the data, info and knowledge that’s incessantly coming your way; connecting dots, bouncing ideas off of trusted colleagues. In other words, it takes time. And that time will only be available if you carve it out. Conversely, if you don’t take the time to think proactively you will increasingly find yourself reacting to your environment rather than influencing it. The resulting situation will inevitably require far more time (and meetings) than thinking strategically would have to begin with.”
3. “Let’s think about that.”It’s a simple but powerful phrase that can change your business and culture. The next time you receive an email marked urgent or someone comes charging into your office with how to react to a competitor’s activity or a new flavor-of-the-month project, reply with “Let’s think about that.” Then stop and consider how this helps you achieve your goals and supports your strategic focus. To do so, determine the probability of success, impact on the business and resources required. If after this analysis, it doesn’t appear to support your goals and strategies, kindly inform folks that relative to the other initiatives you’re working on, this doesn’t warrant resource allocation.
Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion states: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” In your business, thoughtless reaction may cost you a few seemingly harmless hours, or it may eventually lead to people losing their jobs. Heed Horwath’s First (and most likely my last) Law of Strategic Motion: “For every needless reaction, there is someone who failed to think.”