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No time to think, you say? Just wait until the next Wikileaks release

Daniel Patrick Forrester is the author of Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization. He is also a management consultant, and a director and executive within Sapient Government Services, a subsidiary of Sapient Corporation.

The infamous founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, recently claimed that they would soon release damaging documents and proprietary communications from a major bank. Once we get past the revelations and isolated data points deduced from emails and documents, I wonder what good will come from this illegal open sourcing of the internal thinking of a company. Is it possible that dramatic revelations might actually help all organizations to take a big step back and reconsider the entire hierarchy of communications within the firm? The default hierarchy today has placed email and instant communications far above structured, human-driven dialogues. Critical thinking is relegated to the sidelines in an age where the problems we are solving are global, complex and very ambiguous.

For the last two decades, email and instant communications have washed upon all of us and have positively helped transform the way we collaborate and coordinate. But these modes of communication came with no user guide or any implied rules of engagement. Therein lies the tension. They are tools freely distributed, but rarely if ever questioned in terms of their impact on productivity and the opportunity costs that constant use presents. Perhaps emails and communications rapidly compiled and then transmitted inside the targeted bank will give us all pause and force a reset in how we allocate time to think before we electronically capture those thoughts.

Knowledge workers are now drowning in email, as mobile devices have helped destroy any distinctions between our home and work lives. We have all been sold a false narrative that the human mind can efficiently take on simultaneous technology-driven tasks. Each day we switch between such tasks and allow the feeling of "busyness" to absolve us of the critical need for deep thinking. Evidence from leading research institutes like Stanford demonstrates that multitasking is a myth that we have all bought into and rarely question. Research firms like Basex Corporation now reveal that taking time to think and reflect accounts for only 5 percent of our entire workday. Yet, 25 percent of our workdays are spent immersed in information overload. When you don't take time to think and are in a constant state of distraction, it is far more likely you will dash off a poorly considered message or fail to really reflect on a complex issue. Then one day you find your lack of thinking revealed for the whole world to see.

Once WikiLeaks drips out its next set of revelations tied to a bank, it's likely that thousands of organizations will call meetings in which they pose these questions: What would happen if our data was released? How can we build better firewalls to protect ourselves? What would our public relations strategy be in response? While relevant, these are not the core questions that we should be asking.

Leaders should explore the communications narratives within their organizations that imply the supposed value of constant connectivity between employees and the firm. For example, they should question if email usage has become what Harvard's Rakesh Khurana described to me as a form of "soft control" over employees. They can also question the efficacy of the limited time that employees spend thinking either alone or together. And they should ask whether there are incentives that encourage employees, at all levels of the organization, to debate and dissent in dialogues that last longer than a few fragmented minutes. Shareholders and citizens pay the price when we under-think problems and succumb to action bias.

Scott Dockter, CEO of shipping and fulfillment services business, PBD Global, experimented with a "no email Friday" rule. It was an initial step to question the way that electronic communications had changed the family-owned company, based in Atlanta. He was fed up with habitually sending emails to people who were sitting just a few feet from him. He was also conscious of the way that email was eating up sales people's time. Since the first "no email Friday," PBD has done a full review of all their email traffic. As a result, they changed many ingrained habits and routines that had built up over years and had never been questioned.

In the three years since the new policies and basic rules went into effect, PBD has dramatically decreased the volume of email traffic without losing any efficiency or productivity. The "no email Friday" rule has permanently taken hold; by forcing employees to connect in person or over the phone, the company has driven down total email volume while also building stronger employee relationships. PBD also discovered that reams of routine divisional status report emails, filled with statistics and weekly performance data, were better off posted to the company's intranet. Through small changes such as these, human connections are growing stronger and the time to think about customers and their needs is increasing. Dockter told me, "You will not be a good teammate at PBD if you only use email."

While immediacy and novel methods for instant communications have a place, they are hurting our ability to be reflective. The best ideas and insights come to us when we are away from the data and distraction. Prolonged and expansive dialogues allow leaders to better understand the problems they are supposedly solving. Cultures of debate and dissent allow for a routine questioning of the status quo and ingrained beliefs. Big ideas and new methods to innovate are rarely revealed inside minds that are tired, distracted and slaves to our digital umbilical cords. We have all cobbled together disparate methods to stay on top of data and email, but we should ask ourselves, "What methods do I employ every day to stay on top of meaning and insight?"

As the digital New Year gallops to a dizzying pace, there should be one resolution upon which you finally act: Reclaim time simply to think. Will 2011 swarm your organization with data and distraction? Or, will it become the year when space for thinking and reflection is reprioritized and taken off of life support? Don't be distracted by the context-less revelations from WikiLeaks that will methodically dribble out across the year. Use the revelations to actually question habits, hierarchies and routines that are likely holding you back from hatching an idea or gaining insight. It will be a far more valuable exercise than blissfully marinating in information overload under a giant banner that reads: "I'm busy."

By Daniel Patrick Forrester

 |  January 25, 2011; 11:38 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Business Leadership , Leadership advice , Technology , organizational culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Dear Mr. Forrester, I agree with the above poster and think this is a great article. I can without a doubt see it in line with your book on reflective thinking in an organization, and it definitely reminds me of a recent piece I read on reflective thinking by another author. The immediacy of email, without a doubt is a hindrance to critical thinking. Email is essentially a way of imposing a time drain on another individual - it is a query/request for information/attention that could have been solved by some other method. Indeed, we are not arguing whether the existence of an alternative method of communication is good (it without a doubt is beneficial), but rather if it is becomming miss-used.

The drop in face-to-face communication is indeed upsetting in itself, but I believe the greatest issue is the drastic increase in time spent on communication, like you mentioned. There are individuals who spend 60-80% of their day responding to emails. Without a doubt there should be people employed whose task is email response, but (also as the above poster mentioned), people really must learn to self-limit their own email practice. A practice of: not responding to emails that clearly show lack of critical thought/insight seems to be the best solution, and would create a relatively self-limiting environment in the organization.

Leaking of sensitive content / errors in email is closely linked to this, and in reality, care must always be made in transferring sensitive information (paper copy, online submission, etc). Email as communication seems to exacerbate the potential for error.

Posted by: M_Lindsay_10 | February 4, 2011 12:16 PM

Daniel great article. One thing I've noticed is. I actually have self regulate. I've locked in on only one social network. Use only one email addy. And have had to even bypass a lot of the features available to me on Facebook. It's the only way I can keep from feeling overwhelmed. It seems like the add ons and widgets change every day. And it is distracting. It does give one pause and subtracts from precious minutes that could be better spent thinking. Thanks for thinking. :)

Posted by: saintronmcg | January 25, 2011 12:49 PM

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