Solitude – Take time to think by yourself

Please look at the graph that accompanies this column. This is the rate of technological change in our economy today. This is enough to make a normal leader turn paranoid.

Steve Jobs said, “The only way we can deal with this mess is to innovate our way out of it.” So how do you ensure that your organization is adaptive and creative?

To begin, ask yourself: How do you spend your time at work? Chances are you spend a lot of time in meetings.

The Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics burrowed into the daily schedules of more than 500 CEOs around the world. A good part of their days were spent in meetings that they had a hard time defending.

Everyone preaches the value of teamwork and collaboration. Seems like a no brainer to argue that meetings are a healthy way to accomplish this.

Guess what? Many of the greatest ideas originated from thinking done when completely alone.

Jonah Lehrer, writing in the January issue of the New Yorker, documented a devastating experience in the 1950s. It was conducted at BBDO. It found that when test subjects tried to solve a complex puzzle, they actually came up with twice as many ideas working alone as they did working in a group. Numerous studies have since verified that finding: putting people into big groups doesn’t actually increase the flow of ideas. Group dynamics themselves, rather than overt criticism, worked to stifle each person’s potential.

Susan Cain tackles this very problem in her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in the World That Can’t Stop Talking.”

She explained to The New York Times the reason why. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work. They instinctively mimic others opinions and lose sight of their own, and they often succumb to peer pressure.

The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

How often have you heard people say that the best ideas come to them in the shower?

Recently, I toured the SUNY Biomedical Tech Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. In the boardroom on display were the notes of Dr. Robert F. Furchgott, an extraordinary scientist who made major contributions to our understanding of cardiovascular physiology and pharmacology. He was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for identifying the fundamental role that nitric oxide (NO) plays in the regulation of cardiovascular function. He did it all by himself and his notes reflect that.

Steve Jobs spent a lot of time biking through Europe after being terminated by Apple computer. It was there that he thought through the next generation of software for computers that serves as the framework for a lot of the technology of PCs today.

How often have you ever seen a picture of Albert Einstein with a group of people doing research?

Here’s some suggestions on how you and your staff can spend time alone thinking about creative solutions:

  1. Carve out part of your time every day to sit quietly and think. It’s often said that it’s not unusual to see the CEO of a Japanese company sitting in his chair staring at the ceiling. They drove our auto industry into bankruptcy. There’s a lesson there.
  2. Set aside reading time for books and periodicals relevant to your industry, and then take the time to reflect on what you’ve read.
  3. Ensure that there are small private rooms that can be totally blocked off from noise for your employees to use for creative thinking time. Paint the walls with white board so they can draw solutions. Call these quiet rooms.
  4. Take a walk with a CD and listen to audio books on economic trends and the stories of successful companies who compete with you. Turn it off occasionally and think about what you heard.
  5. Between staff meetings assign think work to everyone and ask them to come back to the meeting with their own ideas.
  6. Lastly, I’m not suggesting abandoning brainstorming altogether. Rather, consider spending brainstorming time looking for causes of problems. That’s far more productive. The solutions are best sought in solitude.

Now go take a shower and think about all of this, and how you are going to change your practices based on what you’ve learned here.

Dan Steininger is the president of Biz Starts Milwaukee and a managing partner of the Wisconsin Early-Stage fund. You can contact him by e-mail: Dan@BizStartsMilwaukee.com.

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Dan Steininger is the president and founder of BizStarts. He is also the president of Steininger & Associates. The firm focuses on teaching the tools of innovation to drive growth for companies in all sectors of the economy. Steininger is a former president and CEO of Catholic Financial Life and a graduate of Marquette University and Boston University's School of Law.

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