Skip to content

The Neuroscientists Made Me Do It…

Are you as fascinated as I am by the recent surge in attention to neuroscience as a source of insight into how our brains impact our productivity, creative problem-solving, and capacity to deal with change at work? NO?! Then one of us really needs to get out more…

…and when you do we should go to the NeuroLeadership Summit in New York, because I think we’d leave smarter people, even if it’s only via osmosis. Lucky for us, these neuroscientists are generous folk, and they were kind enough to stream this year’s event for free (and I have to say that it was of superb quality as well).

This event’s tag-line was: “Breaking new ground in our capacity to improve thinking and performance”, and if that doesn’t make you want to go interrogate the nearest neuroscientist, then nothing will. I managed to catch the very last session on the last day, entitled: Reinventing Work- Fresh thinking for how we get things done. And after that I dearly wished I had seen the entire summit, because it was terrific.

Facing a Complex Problem? Take a Nap…

David Creswell Ph.D presented new research that he and his team had completed, demonstrating that the ability to solve complex problems was significantly enhanced when problem solvers’ brains tapped into their unconscious minds for assistance.  They discovered that the most effective way to get the unconscious mind to help out was by reviewing the information associated with this complex problem or decision…and then completely distracting your conscious brain.

According to their research, naps can be effective in activating the unconscious mind in this situation. So too can anything that completely engages your conscious brain- crossword puzzles, Sudoku, painting…maybe even video games?  What’s important is that the activity in question engages our conscious mind completely, and that this distracting activity is significantly different than the task(s) associated with the problem you are trying to solve.  Have you ever ‘slept on’ a problem or difficult decision and then woke up knowing what to do? Then you have experienced this phenomenon (sorry, that does not qualify you to be a neuroscientist). So, maybe all those 90’s tech start-ups with their ping-pong tables and bean bag chairs were on to something…

The implications for knowledge work that is complex, creative, or innovate in nature seems clear- sitting at a desk hammering out hour after hour of activity is counter-productive. Responding to complexity, or decision points, with the willpower to ‘Focus!’, might instead be better served by taking a ‘creativity break’. What would our organizations and workplaces look like if after a tough project meeting, managers said: “Let’s all go play a few rounds of Angry Birds and tackle this thing again this afternoon”?

On a more individual level (and I say this as someone who eats lunch at her desk…every. single. day.) we should all be doing a better job of  setting an example by taking a walk…or a nap at your desk. You can tell your boss that the neuroscientists made you do it

The Workday of the Future?

Saku Tuominen spoke next, and he also focused on enabling creativity in the workplace- again, an essential element of innovative knowledge work. Along with his organization, Idealist, Mr Tuominen has been studying and hypothesizing about ways of completely redesigning the traditional workday as we know it. He rattled of statistics about the state of the workplace today, and why it is an enemy to creativity.  Among his observations were:

  • 37% of people report that their e-mail is “out of control”
  • 72% of people say that they do not even try to plan their week
  • The number of meetings the average worker attends means that they often have no time to prepare for meetings, but frequently can do other work in those meetings because they are so poorly run and irrelevant
  • The majority of meetings workers are invited to are 60 minutes in length, mostly because that is the default built  in to most office calendar/e-mail software

The reality is pretty grim when it is all laid out like that, isn’t it? I think that Mr Tuominen is justified asking how on earth this type of day-to-day experience could realistically co-exist with the creativity and innovation that most competitive organizations expect from their employees today.

But it was not all doom and gloom- Mr Tuominen came with ideas (of course), to reduce these creativity-sappers, and to add more meaning into employee’s  roles. Some of them are things that we know, we just don’t ever really manage to do…others surprised me:

  • Clarify roles and goals
  • Start making all meetings 45 minutes in length (voila, a 15 minute break for all)
  • Break goal-setting down into units of ‘mini-missions’ for the month or week ( I really like this)
  • Focus on quality of work, not when /how it is done (recognize that hard workers are not necessarily the ones who stay late; embrace ‘self-management’)
  • Try to ensure that every employee has at least 4 hours of high-quality, productive work time every day (remove bureaucracy, the expectation of immediate e-mail replies, and this means not being required to attend endless,  irrelevant meetings, pointless conference calls etc.)

The point that really resonated with me most was this:

Our current idea of work/life balance kind of sucks- in many organizations it means that work bleeds into life, but life is still not supposed to bleed into work. So why not redefine the meaning of ‘work day’?

Anyway, Mr Tuominen was very funny, and apparently he has a book on this topic coming out very soon- I’d definitely recommend investigating his ideas further. And let’s all go to the NeuroLeadership Summit next year! Who’s with me??

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: