We live in a world where business, economics, and politics collide in ways that are frustrating and painful.
Some scholars characterize our existence as living on a nonstop treadmill.
The typical executive’s workday is full of meetings, e-mails, phone calls, travel, reports, crisis management, problem-solving, and decision-making.
The Boston Consulting Group’s “index of complicatedness” has been increasing 7% per year for 50 years now.
When was the last time you read a book in one sitting? Or in a day? Or in a week?
When was the last time you wrote down important points from your reading in a journal?
When was the last time you tried one of those “new ideas” in your work?
A Harvard Business School study of top leaders provides some startling figures:
They spend 60% of their time in meetings.
They spend 25% of their time on the phone or at public events.
That leaves 15% for everything else.
This busyness as if the world may end tomorrow has an indeterminable cost.
We do not know everything about the human brain. We know enough to appreciate that our brains have limits in their ability to concentrate, to pay attention to others, to understand, to remember, and to process information.
Our fascination with multi-tasking breaches those limits.
Today’s hyper-competitive environment creates a strong bias for action.
After all, we judge people by their performance.
Without action, there can be no performance.
The critical mistake is to confuse action with effectiveness.
Cal Newport says that many people mistakenly believe “busyness as a proxy for productivity.”
What is the solution?
While critical thinking tries to solve problems, reflective thinking examines one’s underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge.
A mass of empirical evidence suggests that reflective thinking enhances our ability to frame problems, search for new meaning, recognize useful (and useless) patterns, and provides a solid foundation for the future.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California suggests that “constructive internal reflection helps us to make meaning of new information and to identify creative, and relevant relationships between complex ideas.”
Warren Buffet reads 5-6 hours every day. So does Bill Gates (he reads 50 books a year). So do anyone that you can think of as being among the top in their field.
Cognitive science tells us that reflective thinking and goal-oriented thinking occur at opposite ends of a “digital switch” in the brain.
When one is “on,” the other is “off.”
Three Simple Rules:
As with most other things, we can break down reflective thinking into three simple rules (an idea formulated by Kathleen Eisenhardt of Stanford).
1. We need a schedule and a structure – reflective thinking is not a random process. It is as much a part of executive life as anything else. And it takes as little as 12 hours to make it a habit. Some of the questions that can help start the process are:
A. What are some of the patterns/issues/dilemmas in our company that we rarely, if ever, acknowledge?
B. What are some highly successful business models of today that we may be overlooking?
C. What are the explicit and implicit aspirations and dreams that we want to achieve – personally and professionally?
2. In a world that worships success-stories and swiftly condemns a failed initiative or a misstep, and the advent of social media creates relentless pressure, leaders tend to amplify “heroic stoicism.” Leaders can do no wrong. Leaders are always optimistic. Leaders embody confidence and success. All this is fine except that it can exist only in utopia. One of the best enablers of reflective thinking is a person who you trust – completely and unconditionally – and who is not afraid to challenge your assumptions. A dialogue with a trusted person is a powerful catalyst for reflection. Ideally, the person should be from outside the organization.
3. Most importantly, we need to practice noting down important ideas/lessons/shortcomings and turn to them to guide future action. A random act of reflection may be useful but cannot provide lasting value.
The reflective executive is rich in imagination and exemplary in execution.
I am indebted to Roseline Torres, Martin Reeves, Peter Tollman, and Christian Veith of the Boston Consulting Group for the core idea presented in this blog.