GUEST POST from Pete Foley
‘May you live in interesting times’ is the English translation of an ancient Chinese curse. Superficially presented as a blessing, its true meaning is of course far from positive. As memes go, it has lasted quite a while, perhaps because from a cognitive perspective, that little twist, and the little puzzle it forces us to solve makes it more subtle, but also more impactful than a more direct insult. But the ‘blessing and a curse’ dichotomy that it embodies is also a fundamental insight. Opportunity usually brings potential for trouble, and trouble usually bring potential for opportunity, largely because both involve change. So many are going through an awful time on many fronts at the moment, but if that has a silver lining, it is that with it comes change. And ultimately that creates an opportunity for innovation, and hopefully better times.
Big Issues Create Big Opportunity: I’ve written before about the opportunity that Covid-19 presented for innovation. The shattering of habits and established behaviors, combined with dramatic shifts in personal and work situations opened the door to trial of new products and services to a degree not seen in a generation. But as we (hopefully) continue to emerge from Covid, we’ve been sucker punched by numerous other things. The horror of war in Europe being the most shocking, but we are also facing enormous economic challenges in the form of energy shortages, inflation, supply chain issues, the great resignation and rapidly changing socio-political landscapes. And of course, we still have numerous other pressing ‘pre-Covid’ issues such as climate change, pollution and economic inequality that also require urgent attention.
That is a lot of problems that need solving. And as awful as Covid was for everyone, the current issues around supply chain, global economic instability, inflation and increased cost of debt likely create at least as immediate operational issues for many organizations, and hence an equally urgent need for innovation.
Another Innovators Dilemma. Unfortunately, the time when we need most innovation is often when it is hardest to deliver it. Innovation doesn’t happen overnight, and usually needs clear strategy, resources, funding, creativity and knowledge. And all of these are currently in short supply. An uncertain and rapidly changing world makes setting long-term strategy challenging. Supply chain challenges can have huge short-term operational impact, and suck up resources and expertise normally allocated to longer-term innovation. The great resignation and early retirements reduce available expertise. And on top of all of this, inflation, increasing interest rates, raw material prices and labor costs are squeezing finances. None of this is terribly new news, or insightful, but it does provide context for another, sometimes less obvious barrier to innovation that I want to talk about: One that operates more on the individual level – the squeeze of cognitive bandwidth.
Cognitive Bandwidth: The innovation journey needs creativity everywhere from the nascent front end through to launching into market. Ultimately that creativity comes from individuals. That in turn requires those individuals to be allowed the cognitive bandwidth, or ‘quality thinking time’ to ideate. We can only effectively think deeply about one thing at a time. This is our ‘cognitive bandwidth’, and it is a finite resource. There are only so many hours in a day, and most of us can only allocate a small fraction of those to think deeply about problems or process information. And of course the more problems we are facing, the less bandwidth we usually have. The more difficult the situation, the more of our time is spent distracted, jumping from one issue to another, or attempting to ‘multi-task’. Even when we carve out time, the current climate means all too often we are stressed, or in an elevated emotional state. This reduces the quality as well as quantity of our thinking, and so further narrows our individual cognitive bandwidth.
The Covid Squeeze: Covid-19 of course sucked up a lot of cognitive bandwidth. We had to find new ways to work, learn new tools, and new ways to manage personal lives and work-life balance as many found themselves taking on new roles as educators, care givers, chefs, simply learning how to share an office with a spouse for the first time. There were some compensating effects, such as reduced travel, but even that likely had some less obvious and hard to measure impacts on the creative process that I’ll discuss later. But perhaps the biggest, albeit largely intangible impact on cognitive bandwidth was the impact Covid had on our collective emotional state. Covid, and the changes it brought was hard on everybody. Everyone has there own stories, and we’ve all seen the increase in mental health issues that accompanied the pandemic. But this is almost certainly the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Virtually everyone has experienced some degree of increased stress and negative emotions during Covid, and this directly impacts cognitive bandwidth and hence individual innovative capacity.
The Post-Covid Sucker Punch: One thing I think we were all looking forward to was a return to some semblance of normal. But unfortunately, as Covid (hopefully) subsides, reentry into the post Covid world is proving to be very bumpy, and we are facing the cornucopia of other issues described above. This not only creates a host of ‘fires’ that need to be put out, but it also inevitably takes an emotional toll. After two years of disrupted work and home-life, we are now asking people to again step up and be ‘unusually’ innovative in difficult circumstances, and against a backdrop of war and human suffering. Fatigue and burn-out are almost inevitable.
At a practical level, I see this on a day-to-day basis. I sit in a lot of innovation teams, and one pattern I observe consistently is the workforce getting increasingly stretched; both from a time and emotional perspective. I see more and more people getting pulled out of meetings to fight fires, people attempting to double task, or stepping in and out of meetings, or simply looking frazzled and overworked. Of course, none of this is new, overwork and stress existed log before Covid. But it’s also not surprising that it appears to be increasing during a long period of constant change.
The Neuroscience of the Creative Moment. Innovative thinking comes in multiple forms, but it all requires time. We need time to think deeply, and consciously about problems, and to assimilate data and knowledge. But ‘downtime’ is also a critical, if less understood part of the creative process. There is a very good reason that Eureka moments often happen in the bath, shower, or middle of the night. When the mind is relaxed, has time, and not focused on an immediate problem, it is more likely to make surprisingly obvious connections, or see things in different ways. This is often when the biggest ideas occur. We need conscious thinking to build essential foundations of knowledge, but the most interesting ideas and connections often happen when we are not trying. Have you ever had a name on the tip of your tongue, but no matter how hard you try, you cannot find it? Then a few hours later when you are not trying, it pops into your head? This is an analogous mechanism, where conscious focus simply reinforces and repeats converging on the same, sometimes unwanted result, but when we relax, it opens the channel to the needed connection. There is a lot of research around how this works, which includes the interaction between default mode and executive function, the role of alpha waves and flow state, and the conceptual blending process. It’s still very much an evolving science, but one thing that is fairly consistent across this research is that downtime and periods of reduced stress play an important role in the creative process and making connections. Unfortunately, for many, the pandemic reduced relaxation and ‘own time’. Needing to learn new skills and new ways of working, while also having to solve a myriad of new and ever changing problems sucked up time. Even the loss of commutes took away a period of solo reflection where many of us consciously or unconsciously processed and synthesized the day’s information. But perhaps the hardest pill to swallow has been that while we all hoped that the end of Covid would have provided some relief, if anything the news cycle has got worse. This takes an emotional toll. Part of this reflects the ratings competition within media that favors an ever-increasing stream of bad news. But unfortunately it also reflects a very challenging global reality and very real problems and suffering.
What Can We Do?
There are of course limits to what we can do within our sphere of influence. Most of us cannot directly impact the war in Ukraine, the supply chain crisis or global diplomacy. But we can take steps to reduce pressure on our teams, and ourselves, and thus make innovation and creativity a little easier.
1. Make tough strategic priority decisions. Primarily this is a leadership task, but it’s also something we can to some degree manage in our personal portfolios. One reason we see so much innovation during crisis is focus, and a willingness to sacrifice some goals or standards for more important ones. For us to replicate this means being very selective about what fires to fight, while also being willing to let others burn themselves out. This is not without risk, as short-term survival is of course a prerequisite for any successful long-term strategy. But during periods of rapid change, we also see rapid reversals. For example, spikes in raw material costs are often short-term, and developing alternatives can often take longer than the problem lasts. It sounds obvious, but is often deceptively difficult, especially as deciding to let the wrong fire burn itself out can be quite career limiting. But making difficult priority calls, and saying ‘no’ can be critical to maintaining our innovative and competitive edge, by keeping limited cognitive bandwidth focused of the most important tasks.
2. Help talent to focus on what is really important, and to grow skills that are most relevant to the future. There has been an ongoing trend to increasingly ask talent to handle their own administrative and organizational work. This is partly driven by technology that reduces the need for specialized knowledge to manage many logistics tasks. And eliminating support roles looks good on margins and fixed costs. But asking a highly skilled technical expert to cover their own admin not only adds to their workload, but it is also inefficient, as we are effectively overpaying them to complete tasks that often don’t play to their core skills. Conversely, there is also a lot of skill on the sidelines at the moment, while many have developed skills in working remotely. So is one option is to leverage this to free up innovators and experts. Let them focus more on their areas of expertise, by bringing back more general support roles. Or bring in temporary outside help where short-term issues require expertise that is not anticipated to be part of long-term strategy.
3. Schedule down-time, and create a culture where it is encouraged. Build protected spaces in calendars when meetings are not allowed. Encourage lunch breaks, and enable casual team-building events and wellness practices. It’s easy to view these as non-essential, and the type of activities that we cut first when times get tough. But they are critical to an innovative culture. Mental downtime is not a luxury or a perk, but an essential part of the creative process. And in too many cases, we’ve been in crisis mode for so long, that tool has become blunt or burnt out.
4. Further support this with the design of our physical environments. Another trend has been the move to open offices and shared space. This has benefits for both collaboration, and for space efficiency as hybrid home/office working models emerge. But studies have also shown more innovative ideas emerge when people work alone than in brainstorming environments. So it is critical to provide both physical spaces and a culture that enable private reflection and quiet concentration where people can potentially synthesize information and make connections. The key to a cognitively diverse innovation culture is to provide options for different thinking styles. And this also means that acknowledging that benefits of work from home are not one size fits all. For some it’s a blessing, but both work style and personal circumstance can make working from home a challenge for others. To support a cognitively diverse workforce, some people, especially those early in their careers, may need work as a sanctuary, and a bigger physical footprint at work than others.
5. Finally, distribute work evenly. I remember someone telling me early in my career that, ‘if you need something done quickly, go to the busiest person’. There is some truth in that, and some people thrive on high workload. But it only works to a point, and if taken too far, we risk overloading the cognitive bandwidth of our most creative people, even if they may not realize it themselves. By all means give the most challenging and most important tasks to the best people. But don’t overload them too much. They will often be happy to take on more, but it may not be best for them, their creativity, or the organization. Look very hard to see if the load is evenly distributed within an organization, and if not, ask hard questions why not? And if you are the person everyone comes to, practice saying ‘no’ occasionally!
The good news is that humans are pretty resilient, so it doesn’t always take huge changes to get significant results. We are all the progeny of ancestors who survived wars, famine, disease, social upheaval and natural disasters. And it’s worth noting that we are often at our most creative during periods of greatest tragedy.
Technology advanced at a phenomenal pace during WW-II, and more recently the speed of development of Covid vaccines was staggering. But there are clues in those situations that we can learn from. Resources and focus were unprecedented. During WW-II virtually everything was thrown against the war effort, and tough, sometimes brutal priority calls were the norm.
Project Warp Speed put enormous resources against the Covid vaccine and took huge risks on uncertain bets. Of course, most of us working in innovation don’t have these almost infinite resources, but we can be very strategic in how we use what we have. And keep in mind that wartime mentality is meant to be short-term, while Project Warp Speed was designed to last about a year.
We are in the business of creating a sustainable innovation culture. So, we are not just about protecting the cognitive bandwidth of individuals in the short-term, but also preventing burn out, and creating a sustainable cognitive culture.
Image credit: Pixabay
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