By working to keep random thoughts and urges from controlling us, we can focus our energy towards the results we want in our lives. "The price of this freedom… is long training and discipline," Zen Master Philip Kapleau wrote.
Despite this, business teams resist formal procedures or project management, especially teams dependent on creativity. Discipline and innovation are incompatible, they seem to think. But teams that careen from idea to idea believing this is the way to creative solutions are shooting themselves in the bottom line. They are like a squirrel confused by an approaching car, changing directions again and again to escape it. Besides wasting a lot of energy, the results often are, shall we say, deflating. I am reminded of American inventor Thomas Edison's famous saying, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." He also said, "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward." Both of these quotations from a man with more than 1,000 U.S. patents suggest that reflecting on past success and failure can be as important to innovation as it is in personal growth.
That's why I chose to open this science-based post with a Zen quote. A key component of Zen is mindfulness, which is simply keeping your mind on what is going on in this moment. Two psychologists (Jacobs and Blustein) wrote in 2008, "The three key elements of mindfulness are awareness, being in the present moment, and acceptance. Awareness is further broken down into three components: stopping, observing, and returning. Stopping refers to halting those automatic behaviors that arise from automatic thoughts."
A study from last year indicates that stopping, reflecting, and planning next steps based on what was learned lead to greater innovation. Les Tien-Shang Lee of Kun Shan University in Taiwan and Badri Munir Sukoco at Airlangga University in Indonesia surveyed 200 leaders of new product development (NPD) teams based at a science park in Taiwan. To entice people to respond, they offered a chance to win a buffet for four at a five-star restaurant! The questions allowed the researchers to compare the newness and uniqueness of a team's products to its members' knowledge base, project management skills, risk-taking, and "team reflexivity." Lee and Sukoco quote another researcher in saying reflexivity "'includes behaviors such as questioning, planning… reviewing past events with self-awareness, and coming to terms over time with a new awareness.'" All of these, I note, are encouraged by the Project Management Body of Knowledge. A well-run project team routinely stops to reflect on what it has learned and uses those lessons to plan future work. In the Agile software teams I currently work with, we do this every two weeks.
Lee and Sukoco's survey revealed a strong correlation between reflexivity and product innovation. However, risk-taking played a role in that relationship. You may think you know that "risk" is, but I found the authors' discussion of the concept thought-provoking (citations are omitted):
Risk in the entrepreneurship literature relates to the issues of venturing into the unknown or committing large resources for unknown results. In the context of NPD, risk is associated with the changing of beliefs and routines regarding (the) newly developed product. Risk is inevitable in the NPD process since the outcome cannot be known beforehand, even though too much risk may be harmful… (A) new product may fail in the marketplace but if no risks are taken, no new products will ever be marketed.
Not surprisingly, the surveyed teams that took greater risks also produced more innovative products according to their leaders. High reflexivity plus high risk-taking equated to the highest levels of product newness and uniqueness. But reflexivity was so important, low-risk teams created products nearly as innovative as high risk-takers if they stopped to reflect on their results and apply the lessons. In fact, teams with high product knowledge and project management skills were more innovative only if they took the time to reflect.
By itself the study is too limited in size and methods to constitute proof, but it illustrates the direction research is taking in a way that might help you get more creativity from your team (also see my post "Teams that Stopped to Reflect were More Innovative"). In another post, I suggested that PM techniques were born in the chaotic search for a working atomic bomb design despite a huge number of options and technology hurdles. Like it or not, the project produced the intended result in a short three years.
If you are using project management in your work, don't wait until the end of the project to hold a lessons-learned meeting. Hold one at least monthly, and at the end of the session ask how the team's project plans should be changed to apply the lessons. If you are not using project management, at least borrow the concept of the "retrospective" from Agile software development. Every two to four weeks, hold a meeting in which you answer as a team these three questions:
Then create a list of action items[link] for implementing those changes. I think you will quickly come to value the way stopping helps you to move forward.
Action Item: Schedule a retrospective or lessons-learned meeting for your team before you leave the office today.