Don’t Give Up “Thinking Space”
One of the perennial challenges of corporate life seems to be that everything is perceived as “urgent”.
People spend their lives bouncing from one virtual meeting to the next, desperately trying to complete their actions by deadlines that seemed reasonable at the time (but seem almost impossible in retrospect!). The move to virtual working has perhaps exacerbated this for some–when working in an office it physically takes time to move between meeting rooms so even when a diary is filled “back to back” there is some time to move and think…
As practitioners of organizational change, we are usually aiming to maximize the value that is realized by our organizations and customers. This means focusing on delivering the most valuable things first, and “time” seems to be a significant focus on many projects and product development initiatives. Yet delivering the “wrong” thing faster is unlikely to win many supporters. I suspect we’ve all seen situations where things were more complicated than initially seemed to be the case, but pressure is still applied to deliver to the original deadline…
One fairly basic planning tenant is that elapsed time is a different thing to effort. This sounds almost trivial and obvious, doesn’t it? I mean obviously a day’s work can take much longer if the people who need to contribute aren’t available. Yet, so often planning seems to be optimistically conducted assuming people are available, no unexpected information surfaces and decisions can be made instantly. Perhaps you’ve also fallen into this trap? “We’ll have the workshop on Tuesday so the decision will be made on Tuesday”. This sounds logical and might sometimes be the case, but equally we might find somebody discovers some additional information that requires thought and investigation before an informed decision can be made. If the deadline is still Tuesday then we have a dilemma.
Deadlines like this create pressure and they can reduce the ability or willingness to consider constructive dissent and additional unexpected information. If a facilitator says “we must agree today, and if we don’t it’ll be escalated to the board”, this is hardly creating conditions for a fair and balanced discussion. People with doubts might choose to refrain from expressing them. Who wants to be the reason that a deadline is missed… particularly if it’s a concern where there isn’t 100% certainly? Yet that very concern might have been the one that uncovered a major misconception and nudged the project onto a better track.
Of course, there needs to be a balance and we need to avoid “analysis paralysis”. Yet we also need to avoid steamrollering decisions through. An important contributing factor is to build in time for reflection. This involves deliberately building space for people to think, consider and for ideas to incubate.
This is probably something we all do intuitively, but it’s worth bringing it to the fore and considering it consciously. It might involve, for example, holding 1 on 1 interviews with stakeholders on Monday, then a workshop to synthesize their views on Thursday, sending them the output on Friday and reconvening for a quick check the following Wednesday. Rather than building an expectation of “back to back” engagement and sprinting from interview to workshop to validation session, we create space for creativity and for more information to emerge. It’ll also likely be easier to schedule as few stakeholders have lots of consecutive free time in their diaries. After the initial interviews people might have “Eureka” moments and send additional information by email that we wouldn’t have seen if the timetable had been tighter.
This also highlights an important part of analysis work: analysis requires collaboration and relies on thinking. It isn’t purely mechanistic work that can be easily sequenced. In a factory, if someone can produce 50 widgets in an hour, then all things being equal they can probably produce 100 widgets in two hours. The same isn’t true for analysis; an eight hour day filled with eight back to back stakeholder interviews would likely lead to information getting lost (no time to write up notes) and a missed opportunity for connecting the dots between information provided. We don’t work in an “analysis factory”.
As with anything in analysis, there will be times when we need to adapt to the context. There will always be times when something urgent and unexpected happens and we need to mobilize quickly and we have less time that we’d like. However, even in those situations we ought to avoid situations where there’s no time for thinking and creative reflection. At the very least, when a deadline is presented, questions including “how was this deadline arrived at” and “what are the consequences if it is not met” ought to be asked. It may well be that a few days delay now, in return for a better product and more benefits later might be deemed not only acceptable but desirable!