Reflecting about reflection

Reflecting about reflection

thinking_Moyan BrennThis week, a quick thought on a subject I have been meaning to write about for some time. About 6 months ago, I read an article in the Financial Times entitled “Scheduling time to think at work is a brainless idea”. It was an opinion piece by columnist Lucy Kellaway, concerning a suggestion by AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong that employees dedicate 10 percent of their time at work to “thinking”.

Ms. Kellaway opines that the idea is silly. One should not think 10 percent of the time on the job, she says, but rather 100 percent of the time. As she states: “If it is deemed highly desirable to spend 10 per cent of the time thinking, that amounts to admitting it is perfectly acceptable to spend 90 per cent of the day not thinking.” In addition, she goes on to assert that taking time out to think is a pointless exercise. Her best ideas almost always come when she is doing something else: talking to someone, riding her bicycle, or even reading emails. They almost never come when she is sitting still and waiting for them.

I had a good laugh when I read this column, and particularly when I came to the writer’s observation that one should think all of the time. When I say that the article led me to chuckle, I do not mean to criticize Ms Kellaway’s work per se. Often, I find her writing insightful about issues of management and workplace behavior. And, I understand that part of her role as a columnist is to provoke readers, which she frequently does with grace and good humor.

However, on this particular occasion, I feel she has missed the point. While I do not know much about Tim Armstrong or AOL’s “Think Time” policy, I interpret it somewhat differently than the article’s author does. It is certainly not about thinking 10% of the time and shutting off your brain 90% of the time, as Ms. Kellaway provocatively suggests.

What I believe, and what I hope is true of the AOL declaration, is that it is merely an attempt to encourage employees to be more reflective. If we simply replaced the word “thinking” with “reflecting”, I would applaud this initiative as an admirable and welcome one.

In both my consulting in organizations and my teaching of MBA classes, I have found lack of reflection to be a serious issue. Why? Simply because one of the most important conclusions of my academic research and my work in corporations is that the most effective leaders tend to be individuals who spend significant amounts of time reflecting. In contrast, most middle managers and students I work with tell me there is no time to reflect because they are too busy doing things: answering their phones, responding to emails, and performing a multitude of daily tasks.

Image: Flickr-user Moyan Brenn

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