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HR has to re-engineer thinking back into organisations

People report doing some of their best thinking outside the workplace, so how do we bring concentration back into the office?

I was chairing a conference a few weeks ago where the keynote speaker was UK author and futurologist Richard Watson.

During his talk, Watson shared a piece of research from his book Future Minds, where he contacted 1,000 people from a range of backgrounds and professions and asked each of them ‘where and when do you do your best thinking?’

The top 10 responses (in descending order) were: when I’m alone; last thing at night/in bed; in the shower; first thing in the morning; in the car/driving; reading a book, newspaper or magazine; in the bath; outside; anywhere; and running/jogging.

He then dropped the bombshell. Only one person had said “in the office”. And even that one didn’t really count, because what they actually said was “in the office early in the morning before anyone else arrives... or in meetings when a colleague is droning on”.

The tragedy of this, as Watson pointed out, is that we spend millions of pounds designing offices, and billions as a nation building and maintaining the infrastructure to get our people to and from them every day, but the best thinking is done elsewhere.

And I think that points to an enormous challenge – and opportunity – for HR: re-engineering thinking back into our organisations.

It’s a challenge because we will have to change some established practices and preconceptions. But it’s also a huge opportunity because, when you look closely at what these changes would entail, they are achievable at minimal cost and disruption – we simply need to understand how the thinking process works.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several leading mathematicians and scientists began to reflect on – and publicly discuss – their own creative processes.

The first stage they proposed is what modern psychologists have labelled ‘preparation’: the process of immersing oneself in the most up-to-date information and data; the latest stakeholder input;  the cultural, commerical and context; past successes and failures.

And when you think about it, the modern, digitally connected, always-on workplace is brilliant at doing this.

The second stage is ‘incubation’. This is the frequently observed delay between preparation and the third stage, ‘illumination’, that ‘eureka moment’ when the thought finally materialises in a flash of inspiration.

What’s clear is that the incubation stage has been engineered out of our current workplaces and working practices. Fortunately, Watson’s research points to how we might re-engineer it back in.

We can do this simply by giving our people the time and space they need to reflect on the things we’ve been asking them to immerse themselves in. Critically, this needs to be time and space away from the incessant distraction of phones, emails and screens. Time and space for the mind to assess and assimilate all of the material the workplace has so effectively filled it with.

How this is achieved will of course vary between organisations. A quiet corner, a library, a running machine, or – Watson’s suggestion – ‘Device Down Fridays’.

Just as ‘Dress Down Fridays’ were designed to free us from a staid office culture, ‘Device Down Fridays’ could free our minds from the tyranny of smartphones and PCs. 

As playwright George Bernard Shaw observed: “Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”

Just imagine the difference freeing our people to think might make to our organisations.