Doing is celebrated. Thinking is underrated. Encourage thinking time on your teams.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” — Voltaire
This is one of the most frequently asked questions. Getting things done is celebrated. And rightly so. The conventional wisdom for business and life success counsels forward movement. Act rather than merely thinking about what could be. Small steps forward towards the goal will suffice as long as you are consistent in the behavior.
We all enjoy the dopamine hit produced by accomplishing things and checking them off our ‘to-do’ lists. Doing is self-reinforcing.
Quality Employees Get Stuff Done
One way we evaluate people for jobs is by asking ourselves, “Are they a doer?” and “Will they get their hands dirty?” Hiring managers want people on their teams who will get sh*t done and not make excuses.
Currently there are a plethora of books in the business section of bookstores about ‘Doing’ and ‘Increasing Productivity.’ Here are just a few covers.
Not All ‘Doing’ Is Created Equal
“Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right things.” – Peter Drucker
Building on the Peter Drucker quote, I divide ‘doing’ into three categories:
- Good: Output
- Better: Efficiency
- Best: Effectiveness
A lot of work is measured by pure output. Generally, incentive compensation (as well as raises) are linked to these output goals. Did we accomplish the goals set for us? Often done without asking if there is a better way to achieve those goals. And, almost always without questioning if these are the right goals.
Going to the gym regularly for resistance or aerobic training is far better than not going at all. Simply showing up and exercising accomplishes the output goal. In business, a good example of the output goal is “customers” or “revenues.” These are easy to track, easy to explain, and (on the surface) seem like good metrics to track.
Those who make the most progress on health, fitness, and related goals do so as a result of ‘purposeful’ or ideally, ‘deliberate’ practice. This was an approach identified by K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool in their book ‘Peak.’ Purposeful practice incorporates challenges (going slightly beyond your comfort zone), defined goals, and feedback. Deliberate practice involves working with a coach or mentor.
Changes over the last 12 months in the valuation of companies (public and private) have reminded us that efficiency matters a great deal. Efficiency includes moving faster, getting the same outputs with fewer inputs (people or spend), or lower cost inputs (software automation or outsourcing to lower cost locales).
In the workout analogy, this could involve finishing the same workout faster or adding more lifts in the same amount of time.
In business this takes the form of a focus on increasing profitability, shorter CAC payback periods, and lower burn multiples.
Every business should combine output goals with efficiency goals when setting incentive compensation plans for senior executives (even the head of revenue.)
Getting to this point requires questioning (regularly) if we are working on the right things. This is about long-term value creation in business, even if that involves short-term reductions in efficiency or output. It is about prioritization of focus on things that matter. As we know from the Pareto principle, roughly 80% of the consequences stem from 20% of the causes, what Pareto called “the vital few.”
While less might be accomplished, your focus is on what matters to customers, employees and investors (in that order). And ensuring that all the output is high quality.
This is where I ask investors and CEOs (on behalf of all finance teams) to reduce the number of metrics being tracked and the extensive reporting. Ask yourself if all the different metrics you’re tracking really matters in running the business before instituting yet another reporting template.
Taking the weightlifting analogy further, while curls and bench presses might result in more visible short-term gains (muscle gains), full body exercises (such as squats or deadlifts) will create greater long-term benefits. Quite often effectiveness requires using less weight and focusing on joint mobility, so that workouts do not cause injury and prevent the realization of long-term goals.
Thinking Drives Innovation
Sadly, the pendulum has swung too far. Amidst the desire for measurable output and efficiency, companies and their leadership have mostly forgotten about the importance of thinking. In the product development world this manifests in a focus on delivering a product or feature “on time”, rather than delivering the right product or feature.
3M, one of the most innovative companies in history, pioneered the concept of ‘15% time.’ William McKnight started as an assistant bookkeeper at 3M in 1907, rose to become its President in 1929, and then Chairman of the Board from 1949 to 1966. McKnight wrote in 1948:
“As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility
and encourage men and women to exercise their initiative.
This requires considerable tolerance…Mistakes will be made….
Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative.
And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”
This concept morphed into the 20% Time initiative at Google, and something similar has been adopted by other successful companies including Atlassian and Apple.
Thinking Becomes More Important in a World Powered by Intelligent Machines
People are better (at least for now) at thinking than machines. Machines are better at doing (in many cases) and catching up in other cases.
Why would we want to optimize human talent for doing? Instead identify repetitive processes, spend time thinking about solutions, and then introduce automation to increase margins over time through operational leverage with scale.
Eureka Moments are Not Scheduled
It is not surprising that Archimedes was in the bath when he was struck by the scientific principle that bears his name. I am guessing that ‘shower thoughts’ is the name of a well-followed subreddit.
Jeremy Utley (Director of Executive Education at the Stanford d.school) writes about the importance of allowing the mind to wander and quotes Jeff Bezos:
“Wandering is an essential counterbalance to efficiency. You need to employ both.
The outsized discoveries — the “non-linear” ones — are highly likely to require wandering.”
Disconnecting from the immediate task of problem solving often allows one or more solutions to reveal themselves over time.
Practices to Increase the Frequency of Innovative Thoughts
Some things that have worked for me and might for you too include:
- Move your body. Walking or other light exercise, especially in nature, is a great way to unlock hidden insights or generative creative thoughts.
- Conversations. Talk with friends, especially those in similar industries, about their work problems. This allows you to “zoom out” and figure out if the challenges you are facing are more universal.
- Take Advantage of Solitude. Don’t fear boredom. Spend time without looking at the phone on your commute (train, bus etc.) – and good ideas will eventually come. I want to encourage everyone to read or re-read this wonderful piece by William Deresiewicz on Solitude and Leadership.
- Read. Longer form content (articles or books). Find literature where the topic appeals to you but is not directly related to your field of work. The authors took the time to think when creating the content; much more than what it takes to create a post on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.
- Write. Writing is another way to develop thinking skills. It requires me to take what I believe I know and find a way to express my thoughts in a way that makes sense to others. What sounds good in my head turns out to be mostly gibberish when I put it first on paper. Writing requires solitude, like wandering or boredom. And from that solitude comes insight.
- Invert. Figure out how to create the opposite result from what you are seeking. Charlie Munger has talked about this as a powerful problem solving mechanism. Inversion can reveal unconventional ideas. Those untried by you or even those which seem particularly outrageous. Consider under what circumstances they might work.
- Seek Connections across Disciplines. Look for random connections across unrelated fields. Bring in new ideas. This is the biggest value-add of consultants who can find thematic connections in problem solving across industries. Try to convert your specific problem or challenge into a more generic, high-level one.
- Question. Channel your inner child. Ask why. Even though sometimes you will (perhaps rightfully) annoy your colleagues.
- Empathize. Consider the perspective of the customer and what they might ideally want. Rather than optimizing your immediate outcome, figure out how to optimize the customer outcome and also get what you want as a by-product.
Encourage Thinking Time in Your Teams
Organizational behavior reflects the example set by the leader.
In situations where you are the leader, allow for downtime where your team members can simply think and not do.
In a world of remote work, the desire to track and monitor what everyone is doing has only increased. Resist the urge to push for productivity measures that reflect purely actions (lines of code written, interviews held, calls or e-mail made etc.) Use hiring practices and cultural norms to encourage ‘desired’ behavior that will drive the outcomes you want.
While it might seem counterintuitive and risky to ask people to do less, in the long-term I am confident that you will actually get better results and a happier team.
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