Take the time to be creative

January 22, 2015

Smell the dasiesOne of the most overlooked aspects of creativity and learning is simply taking the time needed to reflect and think.  Professor Manfred Kets De Vries suggests that the fast paced, continuous access, instant response culture we operate in is eroding people’s ability to reflect and create innovative solutions to problems.  The pressure to ‘just finish this’ or ‘find out about (and hit Google on your smart phone)’ is usually too great to resist. But working quicker and harder is not necessarily working smarter.

De Vries believes that deliberately slowing down  and setting aside regular periods of ‘constructively doing nothing’ may be the best thing  you can do to induce a state of mind that nurtures imagination, creativity, and improves your mental well-being, by giving ideas time to mature.

“Learning without reflection is a waste, reflection without learning is dangerous” – Confucius

Business may be all pervasive, almost everyone seems glued to their PDA and feels compelled to respond to virtually every email received instantaneously but being busy and being effective are not the same thing unless you work in a customer service or support role!

If you are in a management, problem solving, or creative role a significant part of your job is developing new ideas or concepts that have been though through  and optimised. This requires thinking time.  But is creatively doing nothing really acceptable? Most of us feel guilty if we don’t have something to do, and we get a buzz when we feel really busy. And these busy behaviours generate their own reward by stimulating the brain to shoot dopamine into the bloodstream giving us a rush that can make stopping being busy so much harder. It really is nice to feel wanted, busy and in demand.

The problem with being busy is that if you don’t allow yourself periods of uninterrupted, freely associated, thought then personal growth, insight and creativity are less likely to emerge. And taking the time to ‘smell the daisies’ has multiple benefits……

The world of multitasking and hyperactivity helps us to delude ourselves that we are productive. The reality is that social media is reactive and not very original. It contracts creativity and can impact mental health. If we don’t know how to calibrate the balance between action and reflection we may become a casualty of information overload and psychological burnout.

Similarly, in many contemporary organisations work addicts are encouraged and rewarded; the behaviour is superficially useful to the organisation. Unfortunately, a workaholic environment can contribute to serious personal and mental health problems including low morale, depression, and above average absenteeism. The most effective knowledge workers are those who can both act and reflect, which means unplugging themselves from the compulsion to keep busy.

Deliberately doing nothing creates valuable opportunities for unconscious thought processes. Unconscious thought excels at integrating and associating information; we are less constrained by conventional associations and more likely to generate novel ideas. As well as being good for our mental health, doing nothing may turn out to be the best way to resolve complex problems.  Italian painter Giorgio Vasari summed it up well when he said “Men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work least”.

Some of the ways you can create time for reflection include:

  1. Maintaining your relationships. We all need meaningful contact with people to feel fully alive. Maintaining our relationships needs interaction, engagement and time out from work. Conversation is also a powerful stimulant for creativity (just make sure you have a notebook handy).
  2. Saying No. Being able to say no is a key skill. Simply saying no to unimportant requests can free up time for more important things (see more on personal time management).
  3. Managing your sleep habits. In a perfect world we should all sleep around eight hours a night. Good sleep is essential for personal growth and creativity.

The challenge with taking time out to be creative is the good ideas always come ‘from nowhere’, usually at the most inappropriate moments (eg, in the shower). If this happens to you, you are not alone; from Archimedes in his bath, to Newton in his Lincolnshire garden (but no ‘apple’), brilliant ideas just seem to just appear. So the final element in creatively doing nothing is being able to trap your ideas when they surface.

ProductivityIn summary, a walk around outside or time spent with your feet on the desk can be more productive than working through a lunch-break – now all you have to do is convince the boss.

For a different take on productive laziness see: http://www.thelazyprojectmanager.com/

Ethics, Culture, Rules and Governance

January 7, 2015

RulesFar too many governing bodies spend far too much time focused on rules, conformance and assurance.  While these factors are important they should be an outcome of good governance not the primary focus of the governors.

When an organisation sets high ethical standards and invests in building an executive management culture that supports those standards the need for ‘rules’ is minimised and the organisation as a whole focuses on doing ‘good business’ (see: Corporate Governance).

The order of the functions outlined in The Functions of Governance, places: ‘Determining the objectives of the organisation’, ‘Determining the ethics of the organisation’, and ‘Creating the culture of the organisation’ ahead of both assurance and conformance.  The rational being creating a culture of ‘doing the right thing’ that extends from the very top of the organisation to the very bottom, means most people most of the time will be doing the ‘right thing’ making assurance and conformance a relatively simple adjunct, there to catch the few errors and malpractices that will inevitably occur.

A very strong endorsement of this approach to governance has recently come from one of the world’s most successful business people, Warren Buffet.  His recent memo to the top management of his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway’s subsidiaries (his ‘All Stars’) emphasised that their top priority must be to ‘zealously guard Berkshire’s reputation’ (read act ethically). He also reminded his leadership team that ‘we can afford to lose money–even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation–even a shred of reputation’.

His advice to managers also included this good advice ‘There’s plenty of money to be made in the centre of the court. If it’s questionable whether some action is close to the line, just assume its outside and forget it’. This is a simple ethical guideline that avoids the need for pages of precise ‘rules’ designed to map the edge of legality drafted by lawyers and argued over endlessly.  See more on Ethics. (http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/WhitePapers/WP1001_Ethics.pdf)

Rule#1Reading the memo, its clear Buffet has built a massive organisation based on an ethical culture, employs executives that reinforce the culture, and still makes a very good profit. It’s a long term investment but infinitely preferable to the sort of issues that confronted Salomon Bros., 20 years ago (see: Warren Buffett’s Wild Ride at Salomon), the banks associated with the GFC, and the on-going damage continuing to be suffered by the Australian banks as more ethical failures come to light. I’m sure they all had hundreds of ‘rules’ some of which may even have been sensible.

A copy of Warren Buffet’s memo can be downloaded from:  http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/pdf/Ethics_Culture_Rules-Buffet_Memo.pdf

Fine Tune your detectors

January 3, 2015

Fine tune your detectorsThe quality of any decision you make is determined by the quality of the information and advice you receive. Good information does not necessarily mean a good decision, but bad information will almost certainly lead to a bad decision.

The decision making process and the types of decision a project manager, and almost anybody else, has to make are discussed in WP1053 Decision Making.  The closely aligned process of problem solving in WP1013. Good information and advice is an essential input to both of these processes.

The right information has the potential to reduce or remove the uncertainty at the centre of every decision. If you are lucky and the information or advice removes all of the uncertainty, then there is nothing left to decide! Usually even with good advice, there is still some uncertainty and you still have to make the decision.

In reality, we rarely if ever have enough information; the challenge is to get as much information as is sensible in the circumstances and then make a timely decision accepting there will inevitably be gaps in your knowledge potentially leading to suboptimal outcomes.

However, simply collecting vast quantities of information does not help (unless you are using data mining). Generally information has no value, unless it has the potential to change your decision! The critical thing in decision making is having the key elements of information available when needed, in a useful form, which improves your awareness of the situation and your ability to decide.

But no information or advice is perfect. Before making use of any information, the decision maker has to evaluate the reliability and accuracy of the information or advice and look for any vested interests or bias on the part of the people developing the information or proposing the advice. Good decision makers usually have very finely tuned ‘bull s**t’ detectors.  And whilst this skill often seems to be innate to an individual many of the skills can be learned.

Some of the elements to consider when weighing up information are:

  1. As a starting point, everyone is biased and most people have vested interests. The antidote to bias and vested interests are to consider what effect these influences may have. The more effort someone has committed to developing a set of information, the greater their vested stake in the work. See more on Biases.
  2. Beware of factoids!
    You will be pleased to know, you are one of the 1635 people who have read this post, and as a consequence are now aware of factoids.How do we know this? We don’t. I just made it up; but you can’t call me wrong, because you don’t know, either. A factoid is something that looks like a very precise fact. The antidote to factoids is source information. Good source information in the statement above would be ‘our web counter shows that you are visitor 1635 to this page’. Start worrying if the source is nebulous ‘our webmaster advises’ or ‘based on a sophisticated time related algorithm…’.
  3. Beware of false precision.
    Almost everything that affects project decisions is a guess, assessment or estimate (the terms are largely synonymous) about something that may occur in the future But no one has precise information about the future! False precision damages credibility (see: Is what you heard what I meant?) and is generally less than useful.  The antidote to false precision is to ask for ranges and the basis of the range statement.
  4. Lies, dam lies and statistics 1.
    Some statistics result from the counting of real things. If you trust the people who do the counting, the math and the reporting, the data is as good as you are going to get. However, most statistics are estimates for a large population, derived from the extrapolation of the results from a small sample. Professional statisticians and pollsters attach a calculated margin of error to their work – this margin is important!  The antidote to false statistics is to ignore any that do not come with a statement of the margin for error and how this was derived.
  5. Lies, dam lies and statistics 2.
    Understand the basis for comparison – it is very easy to distort information. Project A will increase the profit on the sale of widgets by 50% whereas project B will only increase the profit on our training business by 10%, if both projects involve a similar cost outlay which one is best??? You need to know the basis for comparison to answer the question: a 50% increase in profits from a base of $100,000 = $50,000 which is half the value of a 10% increase in profits from a base of $1 million.  The antidote to statistical distortion is to largely ignore percent changes and statements such as ‘fastest growing’, ‘biggest increase’, etc.  It is always easier to be the ‘biggest’ if your starting point is the smallest.
  6. The ‘one-in-a-million’ problem
    Discussed in The role of ‘sentinels’ many ‘one-off’ problems are symptoms of a much deeper issue. Our entire working life is less than 20,000 days so the chances of you encountering a genuine ‘one-in-a-million’ event, just once in your working life, is about 2%. Other phrases that should trigger concern include; ‘she’ll be right’, ‘no-problems’, ‘it’s easy’, etc…The antidote to these type of expression is to simply reverse the statement:
    – one-off / one-in-a-million = there’s probably a structural cause to be discovered;
    – she’ll be right = I have no idea how to fix it (and its definitely not OK);
    – no-problems = this is a major problem for me;
    – it’s easy = this will be very difficult (unless the ‘easy’ is followed by an explanation of how it is easy).
  7. The false prophet
    False prophecies are allegations and unsubstantiated statements made with the expectation that the ‘expertise’ of the person the statement is attributed to will cover the statement with absolute credibility. If the statement is improbable, it is improbable regardless of the alleged source.  The antidote to false profits being quoted in the ‘third party’; eg, “Einstein said controlled nuclear fusion was easy”; is simply to seek authentication from the source. If the ‘prophet’ is present, ask them for more information.  Real experts know both the upside and the down side of any course of action they are proposing – they understand the uncertainty. Wannabe experts pretend there is no downside or uncertainty.
  1. Well known facts
    Remember, most ‘well known facts’ are in fact commonly held misconceptions (this statement is a factoid but also useful).  The antidote to ‘well know facts’ is to dig deeper and gather actual facts.

These are just a few ways bad advice and information can be introduced into a decision making process. Taking a few minutes to verify the quality of the advice you are being given, ditch the unsound advice and information, and then use what’s left to inform the decision will enhance the probability of making the best decision in the circumstances.  This is not easy to do (but good decisions are rarely ‘easy’); the consolation is once you develop a reputation for having a good ‘bull s**t’ detector, most sensible people will stop trying to use it on you. Then all you need to do is make the right decision.