Forget about hiring the business guru.


An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal identified the current breed of hot business gurus. For $50,000-75,000 a speech, they'll help you and your company address the challenges of globalization, motivation, and innovation.

Harvard professor Gary Hamel is one of the gurus profiled. His latest book, The Future of Management, strives to help companies create a culture of innovation. In his words,

It seemed to me that getting large organizations to be persistently innovative was akin to getting a dog to walk on its hind legs. The moment you turned your back, it was down on all fours again.

Now, I'm sure that his years of research with companies like W.L. Gore and Google have led to some valuable and subtle insights. But I'm continually struck by one of the most obvious impediments to innovation: the lack of undisturbed thinking time. With Blackberries, email, text messages, instant messaging, not to mention the low-tech knock on the door by a co-worker, most people don't have any time to simply. . . think.

Dr. Edward Hallowell is the psychiatrist who coined the informal term Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) to describe this phenomenon. He maintains that the cognitive impact of all these interruptions causes people to work well below their full potential. They produce less output, think superficially, and generate fewer new ideas – despite working an increasing number of hours.

Nathan Zeldes, an IT principle engineer at Intel, addresses this same issue in his blog (though he uses the term "infomania," coined by Hewlett-Packard). He writes that

because of Infomania, employees are not creating new ideas to the extent they could. New, significant inventions remain un–invented. Better solutions to major problems that may be hobbling an organization’s performance toward its goals are left undiscovered. The engineer who could have the “Aha!” insight leading to the next major product innovation is trying to find 30 minutes to think about it, and failing. The supervisor who could double a fabrication line’s efficiency can’t because they are nearly brain dead from staying up until one AM working on e–mail. Across the industry, knowledge workers and managers are thinking less, inventing less, producing less, succeeding less.

The creative thinking process requires long stretches of uninterrupted time, to study books, articles and online resources, and to process information, sorting it mentally and generating insight. These activities take time as well as mental concentration, which builds up slowly and can easily be lost.

It's interesting to note that two companies widely lauded for innovation and creativity -- Google and 3M -- both allow their employees to spend time working on their own pet projects (20% in the case of Google, and 15% at 3M). In other words, the employees actually have the luxury of uninterrupted thinking and dreaming time, rather than constantly being at the beck and call of coworkers and bosses.

I'm sure that there are other management techniques that companies could deploy to foster creativity. And for $75,000, you could get Gary Hamel to tell you about them. But in keeping with the spirit of lean, before you throw a huge wad of cash at the problem, try something a bit simpler and a whole lot cheaper: ask a few simple questions. Is all (or most) communication done through email? Does the culture expect immediate responses to email? Do people have time to actually do their work, or are they sacrificing the needs of their own projects on the altar of "responsiveness"? If so, you might want to first have a conversation about whether these habits are actually helping your company move forward.

Give your people time to think. Otherwise, you might find that your management team is too busy checking email during Hamel's talk to pay attention to what he says.

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