Issue 2.2 | September 2010

In this Article: The solution to managing rapid change is to slow down and think.

by Jonathan Wilson

If one were to take to heart the advice of hundreds, if not thousands, of business books written in the last two decades, one’s heart would likely fail.  Countless authors cite one recurring theme: the increasing speed and complexity of change.  Typically, they provide one solution: executives need to think, act and adapt very quickly.  Adapt, yes.  Act, certainly.  But think, no.  Because a great deal of evidence thus far tells us that the value of quick thinking is limited primarily to tactical situations.  Rapid adaptation and action that is strategic and bears long-lasting fruit is, in contrast, borne of deep and ponderous thought.

The mind is able to acquire vast amounts of data.  But data acquisition is not thinking.  Thinking, as my friend Robert Krech at the World Bank has said, is making connections.  Those connections are the insights that yield, among many things, innovation.  Consider, for example, the innovation of an entire industry when Cirque du Soleil connected together the idea of theatre with the idea of circus.  The less obvious the connection, the more thought required to make it.  That’s why the Cirque was, and remains, an unbeatable success.

However, pressured as we are by the rapid change brigade, many of us get trapped into making improper or erroneous connections between data points.  Hasty thinking breeds false assumptions.  A global Fortune 500 recently faced massive pressure to catch up to competitors.  It’s answer, to engage in a glut of acquisitions.  But hasty thought has led to a bloated company facing the following problem: a false short-term profitability reading working in tension with the tremendous long-term cost of forcing into alignment the acquired companies, killing their internal cultures and therefore their own performance.

Financial crashes, corporate failures, oil spills – all indicate that we need to think more carefully and more comprehensively, even – indeed, especially – in the face of urgent crises.  What does it take to think better?

Why It’s So Hard to Focus These Days

One prized solution to the dilemma posed by rapid change and human limitation is information technology.  For example, social media permits companies to tap into an incredibly diverse array of insight from employees and customers.  This enables the tremendous speed at which information (in this case, human thought) can be gathered, and multiplies the IQ harnessed in the process.  Thus we appear to have solved a speed and thought capacity problem with the genius of multi-lateral communication that the internet is.

Social media therefore allows us to source a huge array of diverse insights in a way never before possible, which in itself should lead to a higher collective IQ.  Unfortunately, indications are that it will increasingly not.  A number of recent studies reveal that the same social media technologies we use to build vast collective brains actually undermine the individual IQs feeding into those brains: in which case social media simply gives you pooled stupidity.

The barriers erected by current technologies, typically digital and web-based, need to be noted if we are to tap into the profound thinking capacity of the human beings that drive our companies.  Here is what the research is showing:

1. The constant stimulation of e-mails, instant messages, social media sites, and the inevitable link-chasing that ensues, prevents people from taking the down time their brains need in order to effectively process information.

2. The multi-tasking that inevitably arises as we flit from one digital device to another leads to an inability to think in a sustained and focused manner – which persists even when the person is not multi-tasking.  Several studies, including one by Stanford University, published in 2009, demonstrate that people who do not normally multi-task are more effective at multi-tasking when called on by necessity to do so.  Effective rapid action is the result of disciplined mind.  A disciplined mind has spent a lot of time in focused thought. (Multi-tasking also induces stress which, extended over a long time period, leads to a variety of health problems)

3. Finally, the short bursts of visual and mental stimulation that characterize everything from an iPhone app to a Tweet cause the body to inject a spurt of dopamine into the system.  This is frequently addictive.  If you doubt this, consider the effect on yourself of having no access to any web-connected device for more than half a day.  In other words, social media technology has an inbuilt tendency to hook people into habits that undermine effective thought.

At the end of the day, however, the source of thinking remains the human being.  A company might therefore harness speed-enabling, thought-capturing technology, but human thought is no faster than it was a thousand years ago.  People need time and a distraction-fee space to think things through in a thorough manner.  Powerful ideas are the result of a person – or a collective – spending time in sustained and focused thought.

People think in various ways.  Some talk to think.  Some need quiet.  Others think by using their hands to build or draw their developing thoughts.  Many things stand against you or your people having time to think, including the very technology that presents so much genuine promise for increasing collective thinking power.  But this isn’t the only barrier.  The corporate world’s overall culture of haste militates against effective thinking.  If you and your colleagues want to tap into the power of the human mind to create and solve problems, give yourselves scheduled time and space to think, both alone and together.  The greater a leadership role you play, the more time you need to take to think.  A business that doesn’t take the time to slow down and think is stupid.  Literally.

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