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Foresight "Group Genius" Weekend


Leaping the Abyss:

Putting Group Genius to Work


Chapter Three

Freeing Time & Attention

 

A key element of the DesignShop process is to eliminate blocks-identify and clear away the overhead that displaces creativity.

An environment that gives your mind and body what it needs most is likely not what you get under daily circumstances. Instead, your brain is required to pay attention to time management issues, social norms, home worries, recordkeeping, and burdens from the physical environment-at the same instant you are demanding that it be insightful, creative, decisive, communicative, or otherwise productive. All of us underestimate how strongly results are shaped by the structure or the boundaries of our surrounding environment, or how our structures and boundaries shape the results we seek.

Executives need to increase their creativity-their problem-solving, solution-generating ability-and judgment. But their way of working ties them firmly to a mode that undermines their ability to do so. Observe the effects of typically "structured" use of time and attention on executives:

  • Their usual mode becomes one of rushing, very short meetings-averaging nineteen minutes-with condensed information transfer.
  • They are expected to be "in command at all times," including running the meeting.
  • They are expected to have the answers and make the decision, because "the buck stops here."
  • They are expected to balance all competing interests, inside and outside the organization, at all times.
  • While doing all of the above, they are supposed to be creative.

Because all of us have learned to bend our brains to the benefit of time, we no longer recognize time as a strong boundary condition impeding our ability to think nor as a major source of mental overhead. We have all been trained to save time, to make things happen on time, to schedule time, calendar events, and build tight time structures.

We don't ask ourselves what happens when decisions on how to use time are instead prioritized for the benefit of your brain.

DesignShops construct a complete environment for the benefit of your mind, including the full scope of time issues. The DesignShop process answers the question: "How do you work with time to benefit your brain?" Consider what can be done with the many time-related variables to make you more productive:

  • Manipulating hours, minutes, and number of days dedicated to each task,
  • Changing the length of the days, including starting time and ending time,
  • Giving participants a schedule, or keeping it hidden,
  • Altering who is paying attention to time issues,
  • Taking into account the role of sleep time, and the rising and falling of attention spans throughout the day,
  • Experimenting with different rhythms and paces for all of these.

The brain and body respond strongly to the time called out by music-the tempo. "Sound," points out Stanford University professor of music Leonard Ratner, "touches us physically, as vibrations in the air. Physical and emotional responses to the movement of music are touched off by its pace, its regularity, its force, and its flow." Tempo enforces a mood. Timing and intensity communicate arrival or crescendo.

According to Dr. Georgi Lozanov's research into accelerated learning techniques, Baroque music's tempo and patterns help the brain stay focused on work while allowing the body to relax-an ideal state for long, intense learning periods. Depending on the nature of the task at hand, we must ask ourselves what music, tempo, and timing should be provided.

These issues have been woven into the structure and details of a DesignShop event.

We'll start by highlighting the biggest and most dramatic of the time-use techniques. We saw a three-day event, each day starting at 7:30 AM for breakfast, and ending at 8:00 PM, except for the 6:00 PM ending on the final day. Every day, for three days, the people in the room got smarter. By the end of those three days, when the teams pulled together to work on solutions to their specific problems, they were sizzling. Repeatedly, people reported having accomplished the equivalent of a year's worth of decision, design, and planning work during the course of an afternoon. It took them two days of concentrated preparation to put them in good enough mental form, with enough new tools and enough new information, to deliver a dazzling performance.

There's a jocular saying among psychologists that all the important stuff happens in the last fifteen minutes of the session. If so, it seems reasonable to ask-why not just hold fifteen-minute psychology sessions?

Similarly, at DesignShop events, the actual tactical solution to the problem gets done right at the end. So it seems reasonable to ask: why not hold fifteen-minute DesignShops? Why not expect breakthrough creativity in the same length of time as the average management meeting?

This is why: There seems to be a certain amount of concentrated time-hours or days-which must be available to focus on a problem. A sizable chunk of that is spent in preparation for designing a solution, in the same way that an athlete spends more time warming-up, stretching, training and preparing than actually running the race. How much time does a brain need to be in peak form?

By the end of three days, you've dropped the extraneous mental baggage you carried in the door, you've loaded up your head with the complexity of the situation, you've got more tools to work with, you've got more solutions to choose from, you're in top shape mentally.

The DesignShop requires the long hours and the multiple days precisely so that participants can stay focused on the present and the issues involved, rather than continually shift context to deal with the rules and demands of the standard office environment. Time issues affect intensity, immersion, concentration, attention, and rhythm.

Time issues are a sore spot for a lot of people. Matt Taylor observes:

We have rarely had a client argue with us on a major process issue, but they will argue like hell about time.

Sponsors will say in all seriousness, "Solving this problem is critical to our company-it is our top priority and you can do anything you want. But here are your boundaries: the DesignShop is going to last two days, and we'll meet each day from 8 AM to 6 PM." They argue whether it should be an eight or a ten or twelve-hour day. They get upset about whether or not a schedule is posted-all time-related issues.

When the focus is placed on time, competing demands for attention immediately come to the fore. "What! Do you mean I am going to get home late?" Family demands are challenging bids for time. For individuals, the complaint might stem from not wishing to forgo the home environment. For single parents, going even an extra hour is really difficult. Or managers often say, "I want to get on an airplane and go someplace else tomorrow, so let's keep the last day's session short."

Looked at objectively, if solving this problem really is top priority, aren't the other concerns secondary problems to be facilitated, and not allowed to block major achievements that the company urgently needs?

The manager who wants to pare down the hours on the last day of the DesignShop, the day when everyone is finally working in peak form, is thinking of time as a constant. Although 'time" in the abstract is a sliceable, segmentable, uniform entity, time isn't all the same for us humans. We are biological creatures. The manager seems to be thinking two hours off of a three-day DesignShop is trivial and couldn't matter.

Cutting down to ten hours on the last day means we lose 20% of the result of that one day. No-you lose 80% of the total result. He's not seeing the effect on the brain, the nonlinearity of the situation, the discontinuity of the result. What you can achieve in a one-day event is not one-third of what you can achieve over three days-it is more like one-tenth.

Bryan Coffman, who has facilitated DesignShop events for over ten years for organizations ranging from the Commissioner of the IRS to components of Walt Disney World, agrees:

Only a small percentage of people will break through to enhanced creativity during a one-day session. They have not had the benefit of sleeping on the problem two nights, not been forced to work hard on it from different vantage points. They have had time to come in, listen politely, and go home.

"Sleeping on the problem" is a deliberate use of time as a problem-solving technique. You've spent the day in "accelerated learning" or "immersion learning," loading up your head with complexity, new information, new paradigms, and vast new sets of tools to apply to your problem. That night's sleep will shift the learning into long-term memory. When you are handed a creative challenge at 8 AM, your mind comes to work with a different integrated .i.ol kit;tool kit, and perhaps with a restructured view of the world and the problem than you had the day before.

The only way you totally immerse in working with a challenge is when you have an opportunity to get away from the mundane; to step away from the habits, thought patterns, and tools we use during our standard days; to see a wide variety of viewpoints.

The long hours give you enough time to try out, use up, exhaust, and discard habits and standard ways of doing things that haven't been capable of solving the problem. The long hours give you the time to move into trying out new, experimental forms of problem-solving. You can even use the long hours as a way to relax self-imposed rules that are holding you back-you can try out an idea without being so nervous about the listener's response. You can break taboos with excuse of fatigue, relax with fatigue, become more open to information, including information from your unconscious.

Dissolving old structures and reformulating new ones is part of the creative process. It is, quite literally, the chemistry of a solution.

From an interpersonal perspective, the long hours give the time needed to get comfortable with the people around you-get to know the new ones, and get to know the familiar ones in a deeper way.

Christopher Fuller, an artist providing visual interpretations and graphic support for DesignShop participants, says, "I first thought, Why the long hours? Then I realized that with human conflict, this is how you reach agreement. With short hours, people can leave mad and come back refreshed to fight again tomorrow. Long hours make you stay until you find a solution. You can keep working to a resolution if you have to find an answer."

In a time when managers are trying to increase their productivity by making meetings shorter, DesignShops are getting longer, stretching into more days rather than fewer. Two key factors driving the trend to longer DesignShops are increasing numbers of participants and increasing environmental complexity. The greater external complexity means you have to take more time to gather relevant data-there are more resources to be considered, more complexity regarding competitors and markets. To capture the complexity of the environment, managers include more and more stakeholders in the meeting. DesignShop sessions now routinely run with fifty to eighty participants, and the process therefore takes longer.

Frances Gillard, former Center Master for a AEDC's Gossick Leadership Center which offers an ongoing DesignShop capability for the organization, notes: "When people have had several DesignShops, they can productively do a one-day follow-up design session to work on smaller problems or follow-up problems. By then the participants know how to use the new tools, move quickly into the mental warm-up processes, don't waste time and energy fighting to revive an exhausted solution or use an inappropriate tool. Instead they buckle down to the creativity of generating new options, and get a lot out of a short session."

Why would anyone spend a lot of time and energy fighting to hang on to a particular management tool? It doesn't seem reasonable when your company's life is on the line, but people do. We saw it-especially with time management tools like schedules and agendas.

Schedules and agendas are standard, useful ways of moving efficiently through the business of a meeting or a seminar. They seem to be merely time-structuring devices, and yet have major consequences on brain function and creativity. They are also a major emotional hot button.

We watched the buttons go off for every person for whom a DesignShop was a new experience. It started with Lynn Galida from the Wharton Graduate School of Business, attending a DesignShop for the first time. She is here on behalf of her boss-who, although a sponsor, will also be attending a DesignShop for the first time.

The day before the DesignShop activity starts, the entire facilitation team and the sponsors are deep in fine tuning and crafting the proposed schedule for the event. Lynn says very matter-of-factly that her people will, of course, want copies of the schedules and agendas, and could they have them in advance? The equally matter-of-fact reply comes back-don't worry about the "in advance" part, because we don't hand out schedules or agendas for a DesignShop session.

The explanation: The schedule now being crafted by the sponsors and the DesignShop staffers lays out a proposed route through different information exercises, in order to bring the participant group to the goal of a productive problem solution. As in theater, where actors, musicians, lighting technicians, and property managers must all coordinate their activities, the staff lays out action tracks for furniture and space preparation, toys, props, music, and video recording equipment needed for each planned exercise. Just as the audience concentrates on the play, DesignShop participants concentrate on the work-not on the schedule. The schedule is hidden. It is not displayed to participants.

The job of clock watching is handled by the staff, but even their monitoring is hidden. Break-out spaces may have been made smaller, made larger, set with table, chairs, and utensils for lunch or books updated with transcripts of the last module's work, but these events will have happened quietly, invisibly, without taking participants' attention from the current work, without letting them wonder what the title of the next exercise means.

As the hours pass, the schedule will be modified to tailor the future steps to the progress of the group. The facilitation team will make the judgment call to prolong a session if the group is working well and productively, or to redirect an exercise if, in their judgment, circumstances warrant. If, as the work goes along, the participants need something radically different than what has been planned in order to reach their goals, then the plan is tossed out wholesale and the entire event is redesigned at that moment. Think of it as being similar to improvisational theatre. A very experienced sponsor of DesignShops said he had seen it often: "With other consultants it's all done by the book, from A to B to C until you reach Z. Here, the book goes in the trash. The theme is never lost, the goal is never lost, but the plan undergoes continual and sweeping changes."

The explanation to Lynn about the schedule is given, and people turn back to the business of preparation.

But Lynn is frozen in place. It's as if she has "no schedules or agendas" going through Instant Replay mode and still can't believe what she heard. So she gives it another try. "Excuse me, but my people expect schedules." Her voice gets louder, "They want schedules!" Then with real passion and a little bit of panic, "They need schedules! I have to give them schedules!"

At this point, Lynn looks a wee bit high-strung. She's talking as if these professional adults are going to stress out or suffer major trauma if they don't get a sheet of paper with times and topics written on it. And guess what-she's right. When these people show up for the DesignShop, it's clear that they want those schedules. They need those schedules. They even get a little testy. "No schedules! Where's my schedule!" "What do you mean 'participants in the DesignShop aren't given a schedule'!" Some reactions aren't much different than a dedicated heroin addict being told he was going "cold turkey," eyes probing left and right, searching for a hidden stash of schedules.

What must be going through their minds?

  • What kind of place is this, that doesn't have a schedule?
  • How do I know if I want to be here or somewhere else if I don't have the schedule?
  • How can I figure out what to pay attention to without a schedule?
  • If something even more interesting is coming up later in the day, I need to prepare my comments for it instead of paying attention now.
  • How can I coordinate the talks with my own schedule, so I can zip out and make phone calls?
  • Where is the agenda? I need to know where we are going. I need to monitor my time and my content so that I do not bring up a big issue for debate when we have only a minute left for this topic.

We are so accustomed to certain ways of operating in the business world that we cannot properly evaluate their true costs, their subtle consequences, or their inappropriateness to certain situations.

Over time, after our first DesignShop event, the impact of an openly-announced schedule or the lack of it became clear to us. The openly-announced schedule creates a series of paradoxes. It lets one person tune out on the present conversation because the official topic "isn't my responsibility, and I don't need to pay attention until Item 4." Conversely, for others it places a tremendous intellectual burden of self-monitoring and self-suppression. Instead of paying attention to dealing with the problem, we are now paying attention to meeting a time budget. The one way you can have the freedom to engage fully at the present moment and not worry about the clock is if someone else is monitoring the clock and making the judgments about moving on or continuing to closure. The purpose of a schedule or agenda is not lost, but the burden or cost of handling it has been delegated away from people who should be doing other work. The DesignShop facilitation team provides this as part of logistical support to the intellectual process.

Other supports to the intellectual process include creative time techniques, called Time Compression and Time Travel, to help participants jettison other restrictive rules that have been encumbering their insight and creativity. The DesignShop starts with a quote from the poet Rilke: "Unless you've got a thousand year perspective backwards and forwards, you are trapped in the present."

With Time Compression, participants have a brief time-one or two hours-to come back and report a solution on a really complex problem. This is most useful for groups that have found themselves stalled back home. "Stalled" may be taking the form of arguing or endless thrashing as they search unsuccessfully for a "safe" or an obviously successful solution. Somehow, there needs to be a way to get these people off the starting block, to get them to stop the profitless worrying and start doing some designing and creating.

To take the pressure up further and to remind the group that the rest of the world isn't standing still, the time scale may be changed so that each minute of the time allotted for the exercise represents a week or a month passing. The next step in Time Compression is to announce that time is going by as they sit and stew. Suddenly, the group is handed a simulated headline from the Wall Street Journal, and someone notices, "Hey! This date is a year in the future and we haven't made a decision yet!" This often still isn't enough to prompt leaving the safety zone of thrashing mode. The next Wall Street Journal headline shows up, and it has your company's name blazoned across it with the comment: "Investors Becoming Shy. No Decisions Made in Eighteen Months." Now the reaction is "Oh, no! The market is reacting. We'd better start doing something!"

People respond to the information in the feedback loop. Under the challenge and stimulation of this high-compression, information-saturated, intense, demanding environment, people start to remember talent sets that they often haven't used since college. Their natural competitiveness drives them to do well rather than worrying about following the rules-the rules that won't work.

Time Travel, or what might be called the art of Backcasting, is another powerful technique related to time and perception. For whatever the reason, looking backward-Backcasting-to imagine events which have supposedly already happened is much easier for us than forecasting. When trying to work your way out of a current problem, it is more productive to leap into the future, imagine a successful end state, and then explain how you got there rather than getting lost in the myriad of current details and stumbling blocks. Psychologists note an empirically consistent and very different response when participants are asked to backcast instead of forecast.

Gail Taylor also has observed this consistency: "If you ask someone to forecast and hand them a problem which says: 'From today's date, describe the next twenty years,' people routinely say that they can't predict the future. Their written descriptions of the next twenty years are brief, not particularly rich, and are heavily weighted towards the content of today's newspaper headlines. But if you hand the same person a problem which says, 'Today is 2050; now describe the last twenty years,' people will write a great deal."

Maybe forecasting is less productive because the welter of current facts places a constricting barrier on our creative problem-solving ability. Maybe the fact that yesterday was very much like today, and today is very much like tomorrow, keeps problem-solving attention fixed on smooth trends rather than radical breakthroughs. Whatever the reason, forecasting is a weak technique.

The recognition of how powerful Backcasting is-of using it to create a common vision of the future, and then using that vision to let people achieve their maximum potential-was a gift of insight given to Matt Taylor by the novelist C.S. Forester. Forester was best known as the author of the Horatio Hornblower series, as well as the author of The African Queen. Here is Matt's story:

When I was a boy, I loved the C.S. Forester Hornblower stories and reread them until I almost had them memorized. When I was about thirteen, my mother found that Forester was living nearby. She wrote him a letter and Forester invited us over for the morning. We came at 8:00 AM and stayed the whole day.

We ended up in his living room at 5:00 at night, and he said, "Have you ever read The African Queen?"

Matt had seen the movie with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn battling their way down the African river to single-handedly take on and sink a German warship, but-no-he hadn't read the book.

"You really ought to read the book, because it's very important," Forestor said. "Let me tell you how I wrote the book. I imagined two characters-people easily drawn from life, an old spinster and a drunken, irresponsible Cockney boat captain-and I imagined, what could they be at their maximum? I built that in my mind, then I wrote the entire plot of the book to give them the experiences necessary to become that."

"I knew," says Matt, "I had been told something really important. Of course it took a number of years to understand what I learned."

The first part of what Matt learned was "you don't get there from here, but you can get here from there"-you can't get to the desired future state by starting with your current vision of the present. What you need to do is envision the desired future state of what these people or this company could be at their maximum, and then you begin moving as much of that future state into the present as possible. That future vision will help to solve present problems, and keep you on course. Matt continues:

What had to happen for the missionary and the Cockney was for them to come to an understanding-a mission, a goal. Now here was the vision: they are going to blow up a German warship.

And then they had to solve the problems of getting their boat, the African Queen, down to Lake Victoria and doing it. At every problem they came to, for logical purposes, they were blocked, dead in the water-a broken propeller or impassable rapids.

If they had not had the vision, the mission, they would have stopped. They brought "there," the vision of the future, to "here," the present problem with the busted propeller or getting through the weeds, to inform them how to proceed day-to-day. The vision provided the continuity and the wholeness. But the ability to take it day-by-day provided the capacity to deal with problems as they came. They applied the vision to each incremental challenge they faced, so that each incremental step took them closer to their vision.

In the DesignShop, our job is to heal those diseases, the barriers, that stop people from reaching their maximum potential. How? Exactly the way I said. You take them down to the river and give them a boat and a goal and they go down through the swamps to blow up the German warship.

Forester did it with fictional characters. DesignShops do it with real people and organizations. An MG Taylor axiom states, "The future is rational only in hindsight." Client after client travels to the future and then discerns the rational path for having gotten there.

We have already implicitly seen one fairly simple Backcasting story when we talked about Carl Jr.'s creation of the plans for Store 2000. You'll recall that they asked themselves what they envisioned the store to be in the year 2000, not what they might want in 1994 when they were working the problem. They designed for what technologies and demands would be present in the future, but gave themselves the constraint that they would not include any technology which was not on the market within six months of their start-to-build date.

 

Avis Rent-A-Car

Gail Taylor gives an example: "We have told other problem solvers, 'You are so successful that Fortune magazine is coming to interview you. How did you do it?' And from there, people invent pathways that lead to the successful conclusion. We said to Avis: 'Picture this: you've got no central reservation center. How did you do it?'"

With business booming for Avis Rent-A-Car, their central reservation system was fast approaching overload. Operating costs in their Tulsa, Oklahoma, location had been rising, so expanding the existing center or building a second center in Tulsa was not appealing.

The planned solution-conventional and reasonable-was to open a second center in a geographic location with lower costs. The reservation load would be split between Tulsa and the new site. Cities had been evaluated, a new Virginia site for the second center selected, purchase of the property underway, the necessary funds committed, and building plans were being drawn up. Tulsa employees would be offered the opportunity to relocate to the new center.

Charlie Bell, the Vice President responsible for worldwide reservations, had been wrestling with the complexities of coordination between the two sites. With cooperation, he felt, everything would be fine. But with the employees as nervous as they were, as unhappy about the idea of relocating, cooperation could be scarce. To try for that smooth transition, to iron out problems, to soothe employees nervous about the change, Charlie decided to hold a DesignShop event.

The first task for the DesignShop session was to get everyone focused on requirements for continued success. Everyone knew Avis couldn't keep growing at the Tulsa location-just too expensive, something had to be done. Then they tried the radical Backcasting approach: "You've got no central reservation center, and things are running very well. The workload is way up, but costs are way down, and employee quality of life has improved. How did you do it?"

By Backcasting the question, the participants could find the solution. Instead of pouring money into a new building, instead of managing two geographically remote locations, instead of relocating people out of state, a very different picture began developing around telecommuting. Why not work in local neighborhood groups, use low-cost buildings scattered around the suburbs of Tulsa, keep all the jobs in Tulsa, but at a much lower cost of commuting to the workers, using cheaper space?

Working in the DesignShop context-while maintaining a focus on employee quality of life-had actually eliminated a variety of barriers, and in the process opened up possibilities which had not been previously visible or available to the Avis team. In the process of then bringing the future vision to the present, they worked through tactical solutions to the complexities and issues of the problem. It was hard work, just as the African Queen's journey through rapids and leech-infested swamp water was hard work.

For Avis, for Charlie, and for the employees, the results were great. They broadened their options beyond the conventional solution-the "pretty good" solution of building a second site-and moved to a great reservation system operating at lower cost and higher employee satisfaction through telecommuting and two additional mini-centers. Unexpected benefits kept accruing. They found they had greater flexibility, could add business without adding facilities, add new employees at lower overhead cost, and with the restructuring they gained better productivity at the central Tulsa location.

Innovations in time management played a role in getting this kind of breakthrough result, but they are only one part of the story. To see the others, we need to return to the Wharton event just now getting underway.

 

Challenge

1. As before, record impressions and questions upon finishing the chapter.

2. Very quickly compose a list of practices or systems that your company could not do without, but which seem to be limiting its development in some way. Choose one or two by circling them.

3. Before moving on to the next part of the challenge, pick a specific date somewhere seven to ten years in the future. Now put yourself into that date, in a specific environment-notice the season of the year, what you are wearing, the weather, what's happening around you. Once you're firmly, mentally established in that year and can envision it clearly, move on to the next part of this challenge.

4. For the last five years, your company has been operating without the practices and systems that you circled in your Journal almost a decade ago. Breaking free from these constraints once seemed impossible, but now it's all clear and so simple to see. You're on your way to have lunch with a friend you haven't seen for years, and she's very interested in hearing the story of how you broke free so she can apply it to her business. You pick up a pencil-a quaint tool from the last century, but you still like to use one-and draw a diagram that explains the whole story.


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