The Value of Thinking Time

Digital leadership skills

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Abraham Lincoln

For the Knowledge Workers of the millennium, our brain is our axe. From strategy and planning, to operations, execution and delivering results – it all happens within our grey matter. And it needs sharpening every now and then. Between all the running around and fire-fighting situations at work, managers need some amount of time to reflect upon their plans, actions and decisions to consider their progress. Along with their own introspection, leaders also need to encourage their employees to invest time in their own thinking. So, are organisations doing this enough? A recent survey by Go MAD Thinking, on Value of Thinking Time, analyses this.

The following is a summary of the opinions of 100 senior managers and HR leaders, who have reflected on the significance of ‘thinking time’ in organisations.

1. Many managers complain about being too busy with no time to think. What is a realistic and healthy split between thinking and doing for managers?

How many times have we heard from our colleagues, peers, seniors and leaders – “I/we do not have time to think”? Often, managers spend more time executing tasks than thinking of the most effective way to complete them.  Proper time allocation needs efficient time management – a much needed virtue of a leader. But what is a realistic ratio between thinking and doing? 38% of respondents from the survey believe that the ideal ratio of thinking-doing time is a 30/70 split. While 28% felt that it should be 20/80, another 28% indicated a 40/60 ration is reasonable.

2. If the quality of thinking could only be improved in one area of your organisation, where would make the greatest difference?

It’s not just the time given to thinking that is important, it’s the quality of the thinking, particularly the questions being asked that really makes the difference. Whilst senior manager communication, team meetings and project initiation rated equal with 14% each, there was one area that stood out with 48% of respondents stating that cross-functional collaboration would benefit their organisation most. This is perhaps not surprising if we consider the potential opportunities for misalignment of goals, the need to involve others and gain buy-in to collaborative possibility thinking and planning.

3. A significant proportion of change projects fail because of certain factors that are not given sufficient thought. How would you rate the quality of thinking that occurs at project initiation in your organisation?

Considering how much time and money gets wasted through poorly planned projects it is easy to see the link between quality of thinking, project action and results. Our survey results confirmed this. Only 18% of respondents rated the quality of thinking as good at the project initiation stage, with 23% rating the quality of thinking as poor or very poor!

There is a link with the results of question 8 that shows the lack of emphasis given to the conscious design of high quality questions in meetings. This, combined with the previous mentioned results relating to cross-functional collaboration, means that when a shared solution focused thinking approach is applied to cross-functional projects the tangible results are likely to be significant.

4. To what extent has your organisation considered using/embedding a shared thinking system/framework that’s accessible and used at all levels?

“Embedding a shared thinking system is the key to increasing employee productivity and reducing inefficiency. It also helps in reducing hidden waste that is overlooked by lean programmes”- study on employee thinking and engagement by Go MAD Thinking. To assess the effectiveness of such frameworks, our survey posed the same question to managers from different organisations. We were surprised to find that no organisation has a shared thinking system present that our respondents have access to. To add to this, 43% of employees are completely unaware of such systems, while another 43% have never ever considered setting up such a thinking framework. Only 10% of respondents are in the process of embedding one and 5% of them are ‘considering’ having one. This shows that organisational leaders need to be made aware of the benefits of a shared thinking framework that’s accessible to all employees, at all levels. If the benefits of a shared I.T system, a shared communications system and a shared performance management system are understood, then perhaps it is time to consider the productivity benefits of a shared thinking system.

5. How important is it for people in your organisation to be able to “out think” your competitors?

In our survey, 86% of respondents felt that it’s extremely important or very important for their organisations to think ahead of their competitors, while only 14% of employees felt that it’s somewhat important. So it is obvious that one of the greatest competitive advantages your organisation has is its capacity and capability to think. Yet how much time and development is given to supporting people with solution focused thinking?

6. How much emphasis is given to the conscious design of high quality questions used within Exec and senior management meetings?

How we design questions and the way they are used are one of the most important elements of our thinking process. Remember a time when you were asked a thought provoking question and replied, “Good question!” Recent Thinking Effectiveness Audits conducted by Go M.A.D. Thinking revealed that up to 51% of questions asked in Executive and senior management meetings are poorly constructed or phrased in a sub-optimal way. This can create a massive waste of time and resource by focusing participant’s minds on answering/responding to low quality questions. If you want to change or influence a person’s thinking (and subsequent actions and results) first change the question. Leaders and managers need to give more conscious thought to designing high quality questions (to open and focus the mind) before and during meetings.

So how much emphasis do leaders pay to influencing the thoughts of others through the conscious design of high quality questions?

Unfortunately, only 5% of the survey respondents considered it to be a top priority with a further 18% giving question design “considerable” emphasis. Of the remaining 77%, 23% gave it “a bit” of emphasis with 54% giving “not much” or “no attention” to the design and impact of their questions during meetings.

With common complaints about the effectiveness of meetings, there appears to be some simple, but effective ways to change this – if only leaders spent the time to think and asked higher quality questions to themselves and others they met!

The business of business is to be busy but it is essential that we pause, rewind and replay so we can think afresh and think better. Investing in enough thinking time helps leaders enhance their professional success and achieve organisational goals. Go MAD Thinking is a leading authority on thinking effectiveness and coaching conversations.  The Go M.A.D.® range of development materials and business improvement programmes were developed to help organisations improve their productivity and effectiveness by transforming the way people think and engage in the workplace.  Their practical, solution focused methodology based on 20 years of research is now being used by leading organisations in over 40 countries and their podcast series “Thinking for Business Success” has been downloaded by over 1 million people.