Thinktime for Innovation Leadership

By David Peterson

Does your organization value strategic and creative thinking?

Picture this: you are walking past a row of offices with glass walls allowing you to look inside. You pass an office where there is a mid-level manager who is sitting back in his chair, hands behind his head, looking up at the ceiling but with his eyes closed. An hour later, as you pass by for the fourth time, you think something like, “Why doesn’t that guy get off his butt and get to work!”

It’s a natural reaction—but could be dead wrong. It may be that the supposed slacker was in full concentration and really thinking. If so, we should applaud and reward that behavior.

Very few organizations do.

A few years ago, an online periodical had a contest to create a definition of innovation in six words or less. I came up with this definition:

Creativity—expressed, manufactured and consumed.

You have to get creative to think of an idea, be able to write your idea down or share it with another, be able to build it, and ultimately for it to be useful. History is littered with examples of people who had ideas but couldn’t articulate them—or had ideas that couldn’t be manufactured, processes that could not be implemented. There are many examples of solutions that no one wanted to use. But it all starts with creativity.

The financial institution striving to innovate and rewarding employees for creative thinking is a rarity. What would it take for your organization to join that select group?

Incorporating thinktime into your corporate culture is a good place to start.

Thinktime is a way to create structure around creative thinking. While it may be possible to have an “aha” moment anywhere at any time, there are four elements required in order to allow true creativity to flourish. They are:

  • Space
  • Time
  • Time
  • Self-Confidence

Let’s examine each of these in turn. 

  1. Space – The typical office suite or workspace contains nothing that stimulates creativity. Moreover, such places are generally chock full of distractions: the office phone, email, text messages, stacks of important paperwork to review and so on. An even bigger distraction in the workplace is the ability for co-workers to randomly come into your space to talk. You need to escape the distractions and interruptions and get to a space where you can think. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple have created amazing think spaces specifically to spur creativity. You may not be able to duplicate their space, but, regardless of your organization type, find a way to get to a space where you can separate yourself from the daily workflow and truly think.
  2. Time – Do you need to specifically allocate time to think? Wouldn’t an idea just come to you in an inspiration? Possible. But unlikely. You need to allocate time on your calendar…just to think. Put on your calendar that from 11:00 to noon on Tuesday, you are going to think. At 11:00 on Tuesday, you leave your office and go to your designated thinking space. Once you are there, at 11:01, great ideas will start flowing, right? It might take 10 or 15 minutes for your mind to settle down. You need to get past remembering that you have a report due to your boss that afternoon and that call you missed from accounting and that you have to pick up a gallon of milk on your way home. Just relax. After some minutes, you will clear away all the mental clutter and begin to think. Focus on a specific problem and capture (on paper or electronically) all the ideas that come. It doesn’t matter how outrageous or silly they are. You can sort through them later and figure out how useful they are. Don’t do any self-editing at this point.
  3. Time – Yes, I realize I already mentioned time—this is not a duplication. This time is different: use all available time. Remember you booked from 11:00 to noon to think. Say it takes you 10 minutes to calm your mind and you begin thinking about a particular problem. At 11:20, you come up with an amazing idea. Eureka! Your natural inclination from that point is to immediately work on implementing the new idea. Don’t do that. Use all the time allocated and continue thinking. Maybe you will come up with another idea that is even better than the first one. Perhaps the one idea will spur your thinking to iterate on that idea, and, by the time you get to noon, you have improved on your original idea. Unless there is a time-critical issue requiring an immediate response, keep thinking. (If a small child runs into the street to get a ball right in front of an oncoming car, that is not the time to think about alternative solutions!) Most “crisis” situations in the business world do not require this type of immediate response, so taking all of the available time to think can yield creative and innovative solutions.
  4. Self-confidence – This is the last required element for encouraging creative thinking. Nothing kills creativity more than self-doubt. We get so worried about what someone will think of our idea. We think of an “out there” idea, and as soon as we have it we start wondering what the boss will think, or maybe it’s too radical and so forth. Even when no one else is participating in a brainstorming session, we self-edit our ideas based on what we perceive others will think. This is an idea-killer. We must take on the persona of a child on the playground. When you watch kids play, they have an innate and unbounded curiosity. They will make up games, take on personas and create unbelievable scenarios on which to build their play, without any shame or self-doubt. Somewhere along the way, we learn or are forced to understand that this type of play is not what an adult does, so we kill our creativity in the face of unimaginative decorum and office behavioral norms. Only when we return to childlike, unhindered thinking will truly creative ideas flow.

Space, time, time and self-confidence.

That’s the formula for unlocking creativity. If you are a senior manager, you can absolutely make this a part of your workplace. You can create a thinking space and encourage its use. You can make sure that a minimum amount of thinktime is built into each weekly schedule. You can reward employees who embrace thinking and give high praise to new procedures, products and services that come out of this creative thinking. Stop wasting time coming up with excuses of why this won’t work in your institution, and start a project to make thinktime an integral part of ongoing problem resolution. Think about it.

David Peterson is chief strategic officer at i7strategies, a consulting and strategic planning firm specializing in financial institutions and the companies that serve them.