Some of world’s most successful executives set aside unstructured “slow thinking” time, a productive period for discovering new stimuli, perspectives and strategies.
In a famous but possibly apocryphal tale, Albert Einstein dreamed up the theory of relativity while riding his bicycle. Warren Buffett has said that he reads six hours every day and has very few scheduled meetings. These examples stand in contrast to the ways most leaders use their time. Many are slaves to their inbox and meetings. But while focusing on information processing and execution may feel productive, doing so can cause the quality of our thought to suffer. Today’s corporate leaders need to cultivate the art of reflection.
In reflective thought, people examine their assumptions, beliefs and knowledge, while drawing connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. Research has shown that this type of “slow thinking” is negatively correlated with “fast thinking,” as might be employed when driving a car. In other words, reflective thinking and reactive thinking effectively exist at opposite ends of a switch. When one is “on,” the other is “off.”
Senior executives are victims of information overload and overreliance on fast thinking. But some CEOs have resisted these tendencies. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, for example, share Buffett’s discipline to read extensively, safeguard time for personal development projects and constantly seek new stimuli and perspectives.
Based on the examples of these leaders and our own conversations with CEOs, here are some simple principles that can help leaders rediscover the art of reflective thought:
Schedule thinking time. Time is a precondition for slow thinking. Yet research has shown that CEOs’ schedules typically leave them with as little as 15 percent of their time for working alone. It’s fair to assume that a large proportion of even this modest amount of time is likely consumed by reviewing information and dealing with urgent tactical matters, leaving only a tiny fraction for reflective thinking.
There isn’t a single way to carve out time for unstructured thinking. Some spread it out over the week: LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner blocks off 90 minutes to two hours every day for reflection, describing those buffers as his "single most important productivity tool." Others concentrate reflection in a single day. Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of O2E Brands, sets aside all of Monday for thinking and organizing the rest of the week.
Get a coach. The Socratic method remains the most efficient way to stimulate reflection. To inspire and refine reflective thought, leaders often benefit from structured dialogue with a trusted partner. The role of the discussion partner is to facilitate the exploration of ideas, make reflection more productive and build reflective habits and capabilities.
Create a list of questions that prompt reflective thought. In the context of business thinking, divergent questions can be useful for elevating oneself above tactical considerations. These questions can be adapted to the CEO’s way of thinking, but typically include ones pertaining to personal vision, strategy, organization and leadership, such as “What would I do differently if I could recreate the company from a blank state?” and “What unique value can I add to my role as CEO?”
Prevent information overload. CEOs should ensure that opportunities for quiet reflection are not crowded out by information overload. Simple solutions are available, such as chat and messaging to replace internal emails, limited access to large mailing lists and automatic scheduling of emails during working hours. However, information overload remains a cultural issue: Communication is often shaped by norms. For instance, what is the email response time expected from subordinates? Making those norms explicit is essential to ensure that boundaries are set equitably and not just at the discretion of every manager. To be effective, communication norms need to be decided, clarified, embraced and implemented companywide.
Reimagine yourself as a meta-problem solver. Your job as a CEO is to make sure that all work done in your organization is useful and productive. Meta-problem solvers question the process by which ideas are generated and problems solved, and ensure that the right questions are being addressed in the best manner.
One of the most critical issues for a CEO is to ensure the relevance of strategies in complex, rapidly changing business environments. The reflective CEO not only questions the strategy itself, but also the suitability of the approach in different contexts. Reflective thought is a powerful antidote to the mechanical application of familiar approaches to new situations.
Rather than question details of the execution, leaders need to ensure that teams have the right approaches and tools to solve the problem in the first place. If a problem is escalated to you, ask yourself why your teams were unable to solve it and what you can do to expand their thinking.
Be a role model. Reflective thinking routines can trickle down the organization when senior executives serve as role models. As part of the transparency that he promotes, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh shares his schedule publicly, modeling how he uses his time to others.
The most straightforward way to diffuse habits of reflection is to require people to adopt them. At AOL, CEO Tim Armstrong has instructed executives to spend one-tenth of each week on reflective thinking.
There are also implicit ways to encourage reflection. At Microsoft, when he was appointed CEO, Satya Nadella was “known for listening, learning and analyzing.” His example promoted the culture of exploration required to transform the company.
Reflective thinking shouldn’t be the privilege of the enlightened CEO presiding over an organization that merely executes. As automation and artificial intelligence reduce the share of employee time spent on fast thinking, promoting a culture of reflection will be even more critical in creating a sustainable advantage.
Martin Reeves is a senior partner and managing director at the Boston Consulting Group’s New York office and the director of the BCG Henderson Institute. Roselinde Torres is a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group’s New York office and leads CEO Advisory. Fabien Hassan is an ambassador to the BCG Henderson Institute.
Copyright 2017 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.