Monday, May 06, 2013

The Strategic and Creative Value of Procrastination

I ran into a friend a few weeks ago while waiting for an oil change.  I introduced her to someone else I knew in the waiting room by explaining what she does for a living.  She introduced me to her friend with the comment, “he does whatever he wants.”

If I wasn’t a “workaholic” during my career, I don’t know who was, so people worried that retirement would be a difficult adjustment.  It hasn’t been.  They may have assumed that I went about my job with such passion that there wasn’t any left over.  That isn’t how passion works, at least for me anyway.

Lets just say I was pretty “engaged” during my career and still am with a number of pursuits including researching and writing essays for this blog.  A common narrative among ideological conservatives is that people working in government are not engaged.

However, that condition is not limited to public servants.  An on-going nationwide tracking poll by Gallup with a huge sample of more than 151,000 found that only 30% of American workers are engaged.

The Gallup survey also found that “one in five American workers are actively disengaged.”  Similarly, a human resources expert that I worked with told me more than a decade ago that, in any given year, approximately 20% of employees in even the highest performing of organizations are not a good fit.

Another way to look at this is that, according to Gallup, 7 out of every 10 workers including more than six out of ten managers, executives and officials are not fully engaged.  This problem cuts across all organizations regardless of size or sector, private, non-profit and public including those elected to high office.

Before the great recession, Gallup estimated the lost productivity from workers who are actively disengaged alone was $370 billion annually.

The 25-year study by the late Dr. Donald O. Clifton that led to the development of Strengths Finder found that “the most important predictor of the success of a company or division was how many people answered yes to the question ‘Do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?’”

Success in my now-concluded 40-year career as well as in retirement is not so much about the fact that I can now “do whatever I want” but that I’ve always been blessed with the opportunity to do what I do best every day.

During my career I didn’t have a reputation as a “list-checker,” in the pejorative sense of that term, probably because my intensity and inherent “bias for action” has always been coupled with with a love of learning and a knack for integrating new ideas and concepts into insight and innovation.

Those who give “list-checking” a bad name seem to make decisions too quickly, based on far too little information and usually refuse to be informed by any new information.  Masked with an appearance of ultra-confidence and a deep-seated fear of The Plateau Effect, “list-checkers” tend to steamroll more than they collaborate.

The Nobel Prize-winning neuroscience theory of “intelligent memory” teaches that data analysis and so-called intuition work together or parallel in the brain.  “List-checkers” have the potential to be as insightful as anyone if they will just slow down and let their brains tap into data.

At a different place on the spectrum from “list-checkers” are procrastinators.  As infuriating as procrastination in a workplace or a community can be, those with “structured procrastination” a term coined by Dr. John Perry who co-directs the Stanford Center for the Explanation of Consciousness and is the author of The Art of Procrastination, are usually getting far more done than “list-checkers.”

Together with Walter Chen, Perry posted a short essay about healthy procrastination on The Build Network.  Chen a former lawyer and now founder of iDoneThis, a software that fosters collaboration and productivity, also blogs at 99u -Insights on making ideas happen.

To me, another reason that structured procrastinators are so much more productive than “list-checkers” is the way innovation works.  As illustrated in a 4 minute video called Where Good Ideas Come From, also the title of his book published in late 2011, author Steven Johnson explains that good ideas and innovations have long incubation periods as “hunches.”

“Structured procrastinators” seem to grasp that better than others.  They also understand better than “list-checkers” or even hybrids such as me that ideas and insights get better when informed not only by data but by networking with others.

A few years before I retired, I read the  book Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement by Dr. William Duggan, a management professor at Columbia University Business School.  It is summarized on this EconTalk podcast.

Previously,  I had read his earlier book entitled Napoleon’s Glance: The Secret of Strategy, also the title of a course he teaches at Columbia.  According to Duggan, business schools often teach strategic analysis but stop short of strategic thinking or ideation, deeming them instead part of the creative process.

Duggan argues that there are three kinds of intuition (remember intelligent memory above,) “ordinary, expert and strategic.”  “Ordinary intuition” is a gut instinct, a mere feeling.  “Expert intuition” is a snap judgment.

“List-checkers” seem to over rely on these two forms of intuition and proclaiming to be visionaries use them to defend judgments lacking in supportive data.

“Strategic intuition” according to the science in Duggan’s book “is a clear thought…it’s not fast…it’s slow.”  It percolates.  It is what Johnson describes as the “slow hunch.”

Remember, the Internet percolated this way for more than ten years in the mind of its inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee.  “Strategic intuition” provides a much clearer vision with enough time to be informed by data and other hunches.

“Structured procrastinators” appear to somehow understand the power of the “strategic intuition.”  It is also why “deliberative” bodies such as elected officials should be wary of lobbyists and special interests who want to force their hand.

It is also my experience that the best decisions are win-win decisions and these take time and “strategic intuition.”

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