I was in Rochester NY last week for a few talks and was able to sit down with a local journalist about the book and its findings.
Posted by Matt Daneman • May 9, 2011 • 3:41 pm
Whirlpool makes its fortune selling appliances to women – they being the chief consumer and purchase decision maker for washers, dryers and fridges. But it was by taking the time to question that orthodoxy that Whirlpool came up with the idea for its Gladiator Garageworks line of workbenches, wall storage systems and other garage/mancave gear that has become a big seller for the company. And deconstructing anecdotes like that, Daniel Patrick Forrester came up with the thesis behind his book ‘Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization. ’ (2011, 256 pages, $30, Palgrave Macmillan). In Consider, Forrester argues that organizations – be they businesses or the U.S. Army – make the best decisions when they take time to reflect and consider. Of course, that can be a challenge in a world where a higher priority is constantly put on speed and action. Forrester, a Maryland resident, spoke at his alma mater, the University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business Administration. And separately he talked with the Democrat and Chronicle. What fallows is an edited version of that 45-minute conversation:
Forrester: The evidence is mounting that leaders and organizations today are not taking time today to think before they act. There’s an organization I cite, BASICS out of New York City, they study knowledge workers. And they calculate what happens during the course of a knowledge workers day – how much time they spend in meetings, how much time they spend online, how much time they spend getting interrupted and how much time they spend thinking. The number on thinking is down to about 5 percent of a knowledge workers day. 30 percent of a knowledge worker’s day is spent getting interrupted by things that are unimportant, such as deluges of emails, instant messaging, and trying to recover from interruptions.
They quantified another thing I thought was fascinating – if I interrupt you in the middle of some profound moment, you might be hatching the next great idea inside the firm, they suggest it will take you 11 minutes to recover from that interruption if you ever recover. That’s not to say I’m against being social at the office. They’re more thinking about it in terms of interruptions of things that are electronic particularly. The inbound message, the inbound text, the constant tethering to technology. I didn’t want to just lament this, I wanted to say what are leaders doing and what are organizations doing so they are able to contend with it.
D&C: There such a priority on fast quick now turnaround. I’m wondering the notion of people putting more of a premium on stopping, thinking, giving thoughtful process to what they’re doing sounds all well and good. But it sounds like the advice of people should eat a lot more green leafy vegetables. The reality is its not going to happen. How practical is the idea that consideration should be a greater emphasis?
Forrester: The practicality of it is demanded by what we get to observe when we don’t take time to think. We’re getting amazing at it in this country of writing deeply reflective reports after a financial implosion, after a lack of response to a hurricane, after the Deepwater Horizon is at the bottom of the ocean. That’s not to say we can predict each of these events. But you read those reports… the opening lines of most of them have this notion of how people had a bias toward action, a bias toward doing things, and inside the cultures of those organizations there was no incentive to push back, to dissent. You get to catastrophic results when you see this constant desire toward doing something. (U.S. Army General) David Petraeus said to me, ‘Daniel, the first job of a leader is to get the big ideas right. They take time, you have to mature them.’ So when I studied organizations, you realize without reflection and without the ability to have leaders spend some part of their day to pull back and nurture the big ideas, there’s no way theyre going to be able to do anything but contend with the immediate. And when you only contend with the immediate, one day you’re going to get knocked in the jaw.
(Gesturing to his and this reporter’s iPhone) These are products of deep reflection. It’s only coming because they have the ability to take the long view, to step back, to refine it, to be patient with what they’ve brought to the market even though the market wants more and more from them every day. Whatever they come out with, there’s a line around the building. That tells me they’re relevant, they’re getting their customer base right, they’re thinking at deep deep levels before they release a product out onto the market.
I juxtapose that in the book with organizations like the Army. I wanted to study General Petraeus and his behaviors prior to going into Iraq because I asked myself everybody knows about the surge. I was very curious, something had to have happened before the surge. And it turns out there was a seven-month period in which he was not in Iraq, he was in Leavenworth, Kan., and in the Pentagon, thinking, reflecting and refining the doctrine that guides counterinsurgency for our country. Why? We got it wrong – we went to war with an outdated counterinsurgency policy. Our soldiers were riffing and making it up as they go along. (Petraeus) said to me ‘Daniel, the surge wasn’t a surge of troops. The surge was a surge of ideas.’ What I began to discover is that leaders can’t think all day long – I get that. Leaders are called to act. But I think the edge of action today and the habitual response because of the immediate technology seems to imply to us is at some point displacing the thing that makes us most special – our ability to think, ot nurture ideas, and to even give that more than 5 percent of our day.
D&C: What makes you think this is a new trend of a premium not being put on thinking?
Forrester: Thinking is put a premium upon. The top schools in this country are sought after and the top students are always sought after because of their ability to think critically. What’s concerning to me is not so much that thinking is undervalued - it’s that within the organizations I talk a lot about the social contract, the idea of how ideas are passed around and how people behave at meetings. I’ve been at far too many meetings in consequentialsituations in which people are naively trying to do things like multitask. Having your latotp up, attempting to respond to emails while someone is briefing you on something consequential. The data on that tells us that multitasking is mythology. Look at Monster.com, see how many job descriptions feature the notion of mutltiasking. Can drive a car and text message at the same time? The answer is you can, but neither of those achieve a high efficacy. Performance on both suffers. Yet we have people in the mdist of their day, multiple tabs open, instant messaging, constant interruption, and it doesn’t seen like I got anything done today. Why? We have no social contract or rule set that governs how do we hand out the instand message or the email or the exchange of information with one another. You’re not going to shut down email. But I did a case study in the book of a company out of Atlanta called PBD (Worldwide Fulfillment). They’re a transport company. They have a policy, no-email Fridays. If a client emails them on Friday, they can respond. Inside the firm though, they don’t resond to each other. They’ll call each other, they’ll sit and talk to one another, or more importantly they’ll spend more time with their clients. Morale is up, human connection is up, customer relationships are up. It proved to me that when an organization and a leadership team is willing to commit to simply looking at this issue, we can do better.
D&C: So what are some ways organizations and leaders can do better?
Forrester: There’s no silver bullet. Many leaders suggest we can’t control the pace of the day. We don’t know whats going to happen at 12 oclock or 4 o’clock in a given day. One thing we do know, there’s less synchronization in the world in the morning. I’ve studied a lot of the habits of leaders where, before they turn on and plug into email and connect in the morning, they’re doing various activites in which they’re thnking, they might even be doing atypical thinking – reading things that get them out of their comfort zone, becaue the rest of the day is going to spent contending with massive amounts of data. Jeff Hoffman, one fo the founders of Priceline.com, he said to me ‘I make time every morning to wonder.’ He calls it his wonder time. ‘I wonder about the trends I’m seeing. I don’t check my email. I don’t work on the tasks I’m going to work on that day. I’ll go to places like Yahoo and Google and see what the key word searches have been across the world in the last 24 hours.’ They’re data points. You tend to discover in those morning sessions some interesting associations you’d never get to make in the course of a day when people are pounding him with information. I thought that was fascinating.
I juxtapose that with Abrham Lincoln. There are a number of stories, he had a physical location he lived outside of the White House, the Soldiers Home, which is north of the White House. He lived there about a quarter of his presidency. Many mornings you would find Lincoln alone reading the Bible, reading SHakespeark. Why? Once you arrive at the White House, he described it as the Beggars Opera, the Iron Cage. His day was spent in a constant queue. Those morning times, he held them sacred. They say some of the early kernels of the Emancipation Proclamation were born in his head through small snippets of paper discovered in his desk there. What does that tell you? He created a separation of home and work at some level. There was fleeting moments of thinking, that allowed him to craft one of the biggest ideas of all time for our country. So when you think about that, if you don’t find about that time to do it, life will happen to you. You’ll be constantly in responsiveness mode. And you may not hatch something that can transcendent for your organization.