By Markham Heid
Your attention may be your most precious resource, and you only have so much of it to spread around each day.Work and social obligations demand a portion of it. And it’s easy to occupy whatever is left over with stimuli of one kind or another—whether it’s listening to a podcast or watching a show. For many people, time spent in the shower or trying to fall asleep at night may be the only remaining scraps of the day when their mind is wholly free to wander.None of this may seem like a problem.
After all, why waste time doing nothing when you could be doing something fun or productive?
As long as you’re occupying your mind with (mostly) high-quality content, what’s the harm?“. The research on learning is extremely clear,” says Loren Frank, a professor at the Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco. “To learn something well, you need to study it for a while and then take a break.” Frank points to the evidence on educational training, which has shown again and again that people retain new information best when their minds are given time off to encode and consolidate.
Even outside of study contexts, taking small breaks after digesting new material—whether it’s a news article or an important email—appears to help your brain parse and memorize what you’ve just learned.
To better understand how brains process new information, Frank has conducted brain-scan experiments on rats. He and his colleagues have shown that when rats are allowed to rest after completing an unfamiliar maze, their brains appear to automatically replay the experience of navigating the maze. Confronted later with the same labyrinth, the rats find their way through it more quickly. On the other hand, when rats are immediately confronted with a new challenge after completing a maze, their brains don’t have the chance to replay what they’ve learned, Frank says. Later, when challenged again with the same maze, these rats aren’t able to navigate it any faster than they did the first time.Frank says the human brain seems to work in a similar way. “The brain needs free time to process new information and turn it into something more permanent,” he says.How much free time? That depends.
“We know the brain can get into its downtime state very quickly, and the education research suggests just a few minutes—five to 15—are enough to aid learning,”
The says. The amount of time a mind needs to construct a durable memory probably varies from one person to the next, and also depends on the complexity of what that person is trying to learn, he adds.Experts say idle time likely also helps develop mental processes that are far more complicated than memory storage and retrieval. “The deeper reflective states, where you make meaning of what’s going on and connect it to self and identity and integrate knowledge together into coherent narratives—these kinds of processes only happen when you’re not focused on some in-the-moment activity,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California.When your brain is bombarded with novel stimuli or information, she says, it can struggle to generate purposefulness and meaning. Too much of this can you leave you feeling aimless—or worse. “If you’re stuck in this feed-me stimulation loop, we know that this is associated with the feeling of being out of control,” she says. “It’s associated with anxiety and disconnectedness, and a feeling of, what’s really real?”
Mental idle time, meanwhile, seems to facilitate creativity and problem-solving.
“Our research has found that mind-wandering may foster a particular kind of productivity,” says Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has studied mind-wandering extensively. He says overcoming impasses—including what he calls “a-ha!” moments—often happen when people’s minds are free to roam.Schooler mentions the common experience of not being able to recall a word that’s on the tip of your tongue—no matter how hard you try to think of it. But as soon as you move onto another mental task, the word pops into your head.
“I think it’s very possible that some unconscious processes are going on during mind-wandering, and the insights these processes produce then bubble up to the surface,” he says. It’s also possible that depriving the brain of free time stifles its ability to complete this unconscious work.
“I think we need to recognize that the brain’s internal train of thought can be of value in itself,” Schooler says. “In the same way we can experience a sleep deficit, I think we can experience a mind-wandering deficit.”“Many people find it difficult or stressful to do absolutely nothing,” he adds. Instead, Schooler says “non-demanding” tasks that don’t require much mental engagement seem to be best at fostering “productive” mind-wandering. He mentions activities like going for a walk in a quiet place, doing the dishes, or folding laundry—chores that may occupy your hands or body but that don’t require much from your brain.While a wandering mind can slip into some unhelpful and unhealthy states of rumination, that doesn’t mean blocking these thoughts with constant distraction is the way to go.
“I think it’s about finding balance between being occupied and in the present and letting your mind wander—[and] about thinking positive thoughts and thinking about obstacles that may stand in your way,” says Schooler.
There may be no optimal amount of time you can commit to mental freedom to strike that balance. But if you feel like it takes “remarkable effort” for you to disengage from all your favorite sources of mental stimulation, that’s probably a good sign you need to give your brain more free time, Immordino-Yang says.
“To just sit and think is not pleasant when your brain is trained out of practicing that, but that’s really important for well-being,” she adds.
Frank recommends starting small—maybe take a 15-minute, distraction-free walk in the middle of your day. “You might find your world changes,” he says.
Oct 9, 2017: Weekly Curated Thought-Sharing on Digital Disruption, Applied Neuroscience and Other Interesting Related Matters.
By Bryan Walker and Sarah A. Soule
Curated by Helena M. Herrero Lamuedra
Culture is like the wind. It is invisible, yet its effect can be seen and felt. When it is blowing in your direction, it makes for smooth sailing. When it is blowing against you, everything is more difficult.
For organizations seeking to become more adaptive and innovative, culture change is often the most challenging part of the transformation. Innovation demands new behaviors from leaders and employees that are often antithetical to corporate cultures, which are historically focused on operational excellence and efficiency.
But culture change can’t be achieved through top-down mandate. It lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of “how things are done around here.” Someone with authority can demand compliance, but they can’t dictate optimism, trust, conviction, or creativity.
We believe that the most significant change often comes through social movements, and that despite the differences between private enterprises and society, leaders can learn from how these initiators engage and mobilize the masses to institutionalize new societal norms.
Dr. Reddy’s: A Movement-Minded Case Study
One leader who understands this well is G.V. Prasad, CEO of Dr. Reddy’s, a 33-year-old global pharmaceutical company headquartered in India that produces affordable generic medication. With the company’s more than seven distinct business units operating in 27 countries and more than 20,000 employees, decision making had grown more convoluted and branches of the organization had become misaligned. Over the years, Dr. Reddy’s had built in lots of procedures, and for many good reasons. But those procedures had also slowed the company down.
Prasad sought to evolve Dr. Reddy’s culture to be nimble, innovative, and patient-centered. He knew it required a journey to align and galvanize all employees. His leadership team began with a search for purpose. Over the course of several months, the Dr. Reddy’s team worked to learn about the needs of everyone, from shop floor workers to scientists, external partners, and investors. Together they defined and distilled the purpose of the company, paring it down to four simple words that center on the patient: “Good health can’t wait.”
But instead of plastering this new slogan on motivational posters and repeating it in all-hands meetings, the leadership team began by quietly using it to start guiding their own decisions. The goal was to demonstrate this idea in action, not talk about it. Projects were selected across channels to highlight agility, innovation, and customer centricity. Product packaging was redesigned to be more user-friendly and increase adherence. A comprehensive internal data platform was developed to help Dr. Reddy’s employees be proactive with their customer requests and solve any problems in an agile way.
At this point it was time to more broadly share the stated purpose — first internally with all employees, and then externally with the world. At the internal launch event, Dr. Reddy’s employees learned about their purpose and were invited to be part of realizing it. Everyone was asked to make a personal promise about how they, in their current role, would contribute to “good health can’t wait.” The following day Dr. Reddy’s unveiled a new brand identity and website that publicly stated its purpose. Soon after, the company established two new “innovation studios” in Hyderabad and Mumbai to offer additional structural support to creativity within the company.
Prasad saw a change in the company culture right away:
After we introduced the idea of “good health can’t wait,” one of the scientists told me he developed a product in 15 days and broke every rule there was in the company. He was proudly stating that! Normally, just getting the raw materials would take him months, not to mention the rest of the process for making the medication. But he was acting on that urgency. And now he’s taking this lesson of being lean and applying it to all our procedures.
What Does a Movement Look Like?
To draw parallels between the journey of Dr. Reddy’s and a movement, we need to better understand movements.
We often think of movements as starting with a call to action. But movement research suggests that they actually start with emotion — a diffuse dissatisfaction with the status quo and a broad sense that the current institutions and power structures of the society will not address the problem. This brewing discontent turns into a movement when a voice arises that provides a positive vision and a path forward that’s within the power of the crowd.
What’s more, social movements typically start small. They begin with a group of passionate enthusiasts who deliver a few modest wins. While these wins are small, they’re powerful in demonstrating efficacy to nonparticipants, and they help the movement gain steam. The movement really gathers force and scale once this group successfully co-opts existing networks and influencers. Eventually, in successful movements, leaders leverage their momentum and influence to institutionalize the change in the formal power structures and rules of society.
Practices for Leading a Cultural Movement
Leaders should not be too quick or simplistic in their translation of social movement dynamics into change management plans. That said, leaders can learn a lot from the practices of skillful movement makers.
Frame the issue. Successful leaders of movements are often masters of framing situations in terms that stir emotion and incite action. Framing can also apply social pressure to conform. For example, “Secondhand smoking kills. So shame on you for smoking around others.”
In terms of organizational culture change, simply explaining the need for change won’t cut it. Creating a sense of urgency is helpful, but can be short-lived. To harness people’s full, lasting commitment, they must feel a deep desire, and even responsibility, to change. A leader can do this by framing change within the organization’s purpose — the “why we exist” question. A good organizational purpose calls for the pursuit of greatness in service of others. It asks employees to be driven by more than personal gain. It gives meaning to work, conjures individual emotion, and incites collective action. Prasad framed Dr. Reddy’s transformation as the pursuit of “good health can’t wait.”
Demonstrate quick wins. Movement makers are very good at recognizing the power of celebrating small wins. Research has shown that demonstrating efficacy is one way that movements bring in people who are sympathetic but not yet mobilized to join.
When it comes to organizational culture change, leaders too often fall into the trap of declaring the culture shifts they hope to see. Instead, they need to spotlight examples of actions they hope to see more of within the culture. Sometimes, these examples already exist within the culture, but at a limited scale. Other times, they need to be created. When Prasad and his leadership team launched projects across key divisions, those projects served to demonstrate the efficacy of a nimble, innovative, and customer-centered way of working and of how pursuit of purpose could deliver outcomes the business cared about. Once these projects were far enough along, the Dr. Reddy’s leadership used them to help communicate their purpose and culture change ambitions.
Harness networks. Effective movement makers are extremely good at building coalitions, bridging disparate groups to form a larger and more diverse network that shares a common purpose. And effective movement makers know how to activate existing networks for their purposes. They also use social networks to spread ideas and broadcast their wins.
Leadership at Dr. Reddy’s did not hide in a back room and come up with their purpose. Over the course of several months, people from across the organization were engaged in the process. The approach was built on the belief that people are more apt to support what they have a stake in creating. And during the organization-wide launch event, Prasad invited all employees to make the purpose their own by defining how they personally would help deliver “good health can’t wait.”
Create safe havens. Movement makers are experts at creating or identifying spaces within which movement members can craft strategy and discuss tactics. These are spaces where the rules of engagement and behaviors of activists are different from those of the dominant culture. They’re microcosms of what the movement hopes will become the future.
The dominant culture and structure of today’s organizations are perfectly designed to produce their current behaviors and outcomes, regardless of whether those outcomes are the ones you want. If your hope is for individuals to act differently, it helps to change their surrounding conditions to be more supportive of the new behaviors. Outposts and labs are often built as new environments that serve as a microcosm for change. Dr. Reddy’s established two innovation labs to explore the future of medicine and create a space where it’s easier for people to embrace new beliefs and perform new behaviors.
Embrace symbols. Movement makers are experts at constructing and deploying symbols and costumes that simultaneously create a feeling of solidarity and demarcate who they are and what they stand for to the outside world. Symbols and costumes of solidarity help define the boundary between “us” and “them” for movements. These symbols can be as simple as a T-shirt, bumper sticker, or button supporting a general cause.
Dr. Reddy’s linked its change in culture and purpose with a new corporate brand identity. Internally and externally, the act reinforced a message of unity and commitment. The entire company stands together in pursuit of this purpose.
The Challenge to Leadership
Unlike a movement maker, an enterprise leader is often in a position of authority. They can mandate changes to the organization — and at times they should. However, when it comes to culture change, they should do so sparingly. It’s easy to overuse one’s authority in the hopes of accelerating transformation.
It’s also easy for an enterprise leader to shy away from organizational friction. Harmony is generally a preferred state, after all. And the success of an organizational transition is often judged by its seamlessness.
In a movements-based approach to change, a moderate amount of friction is positive. A complete absence of friction probably means that little is actually changing. Look for the places where the movement faces resistance and experiences friction. They often indicate where the dominant organizational design and culture may need to evolve.
And remember that culture change only happens when people take action. So start there. While articulating a mission and changing company structures are important, it’s often a more successful approach to tackle those sorts of issues after you’ve been able to show people the change you want to see.
Jul 17, 2017: Weekly Curated Thought-Sharing on Digital Disruption, Applied Neuroscience and Other Interesting Related Matters.
By Susan Lund, James Manyika, and Sree Ramaswamy
Curated by Helena M. Herrero Lamuedra
The past three decades saw companies in developed economies make huge strides improving the productivity and organizational performance of an array of jobs. Aided by advances in technology and digital communications, companies automated, reengineered, and outsourced numerous tasks that had once required full-time, on-site employees. The trend, which began on production floors, moved next to offices, where a range of transaction-based jobs that could be standardized or scripted were automated, shifted to workers in low-wage countries, or both.
Through all such changes, a broad swath of employment remained largely untouched: work requiring extensive human interactions. Among these positions are the jobs held by knowledge workers—the doctors, engineers, lawyers, managers, sales representatives, teachers, and other skilled professionals who together serve as the engine of the knowledge economy. Research has shown that such interaction workers are vital to the competitive success of companies and countries alike. Interaction work is the fastest-growing category of employment in developed countries, where it already accounts for a large proportion of jobs. Because technology has tended to complement, not replace, labor in interaction work, until recently many of these jobs had essentially been performed in the same ways for decades.
Not anymore. Today, interaction work is at an inflection point as global competition, emerging skill shortages, and changing demographics force companies to use their most highly paid talent more effectively. Employers in advanced economies may soon, for example, be unable to find as many college-educated workers as they require. Research finds that in the United States, the gap could reach 1.5 million graduates by decade’s end. China, where many global companies have staked growth plans, faces a shortage of 23 million college-educated workers in 2020.
The causes of this looming talent crunch are diverse. In some advanced economies, notably Japan, stagnant population growth means there soon won’t be enough young workers to replace retirees. The underrepresentation of women, particularly in the ranks of managers and executives, remains a problem in some economies, notably Germany. And despite technological advances in communications, geographic mismatches persist between the supply of workers and the demand for them.
A changing world
Against this backdrop, leading companies —in aviation, business services, financial services, health care, high-tech manufacturing, and other industries—are exploring ways to revamp how, where, and by whom interaction work is performed. Companies that succeed in these efforts will enjoy productivity gains, greater flexibility in responding to opportunities, and better access to scarce talent. But to get there, they must rethink how they manage their workforces. Let’s look at three approaches companies are taking, along with the implications for managers.
1. Break jobs down
Nearly all high-skill interaction jobs include tasks that can be hived off to allow the best-paid workers to focus on the most value-creating activities. A classic example was the introduction of paralegals into the legal profession, relieving attorneys of research and litigation-support tasks while allowing them to spend more time in the courtroom or serving clients. This shift created a middle-income profession that now employs more than one-quarter of a million people in the United States. Medicine is a field that is ripe for this type of job modification.
Traditional corporate line positions are also splintering. An obvious example of the disaggregation that’s been under way for some time comes from the human-resources (HR) function, now being broken into disciplines such as compensation, recruiting, and benefits administration. Specialists (who may be full-time employees, contractors, or employees of service providers) can bring the expertise that generalists lack, often at a far lower cost.
We believe the trend to disaggregate jobs will pick up speed as skill shortages take hold. The effects will be most strongly felt in corporate roles, such as marketing, that are quickly being transformed by digital technology. In such cases, breaking jobs down into more specialized tasks will not only help companies economize on scarce talent but also make it possible to perform those tasks more efficiently and effectively.
2. Go virtual
Employers first began ramping up their use of remote-work arrangements in the 1990s, in part to retain the services of mothers who preferred not to commute or who wanted to work part time. As technology evolved, companies such as IBM found they could eliminate permanent offices for sales reps and other customer-facing employees. Such moves yielded huge cost savings on real estate while increasing the time reps could spend with customers. Now, thanks to broadband, cloud computing, and a burgeoning market for online collaboration tools, many more jobs that once required in-person interactions can be performed anywhere. These jobs range from administrative assistants and insurance claims processors to law associates and corporate workers in functions such as finance or HR.
Increasingly, new hires may not even come into the office for training, which is also delivered electronically. And because the rites of social media are so familiar to many employees, members of remote teams and their managers often establish relationships quickly.
Virtual approaches to work are attractive to a wide array of employees, including working mothers, older workers, and younger, Generation Y professionals who want flexible lifestyles from the start. Younger workers are often particularly suited to work remotely, having grown up socializing and collaborating online.
3. Make work more flexible
By breaking some jobs into components and using technology to virtualize others, employers can engage labor far more efficiently. Some companies are already exploring a spectrum of mix-and-match work arrangements: traditional full-time workers in the office, part-time or temporary workers, and contingent, remote workers who can help meet spikes in demand. Companies that optimize such configurations and manage them effectively can begin engaging talent as needed, thereby lowering overhead costs and improving response times. The key to this talent-on-demand model is the availability of workers with specialized skills who are willing to work on a contingent basis.
The workforce appears ready. An expanding industry of intermediaries and “talent aggregators” has cropped up to supply interaction workers ranging from drug-development scientists to advertising copywriters to investment bankers and attorneys. In the United States, 45 percent of temporary employees work in management, in IT or technical occupations, or in health care, and contract work has grown four times faster than total employment over the past decade. Moreover, while many less-skilled temporary workers were laid off during the recent recession, contingent work among more highly skilled professionals has continued to grow.
Implications for senior executives
Savvy senior executives will recognize that managing the shift currently under way is analogous to leading a major change-management program and that managers, at all levels, will be the ones most keenly affected. The first priority for executives seeking to lead their organizations into the new world of work should be helping their management teams improve—or in some cases develop—abilities such as these:
- Coordinate and sequence. Managing diverse groups of on-site and remote employees will be challenging in a world where the composition of teams changes rapidly as project-based contractors and temporary staff come and go. Managers must become nimble coordinators and better coaches to ensure that all tasks, wherever they occur, mesh smoothly and that information is shared effectively among colleagues. Group interactions, in particular, will require more careful planning and structuring.
- (Over)communicate. Some companies require offsite workers to be available for a certain period each day to handle team catch-ups and check-ins with colleagues; other companies set aside regular times for in-person meetings.
- Observe and listen. While some employees thrive in independent, remote work environments, others wither in the absence of daily contact with coworkers or the camaraderie of working in a traditional team. Likewise, some managers worry that remote workers will identify less fully with their companies. The best managers will vigilantly observe how their people adjust and respond accordingly.
- Let go. Some managers already struggle when they evaluate the performance of knowledge workers. It’s a perennial challenge to judge employees on outcomes, not hours, since defining clear goals and determining reasonable time lines are difficult. Yet in an environment where some employees work in a central office and others are time zones away, managers have no choice but to define goals and step back.
As with all change programs, the role of senior management will include communicating a clear rationale for any moves and creating a compelling vision of how they will help the company reach its goals. Managers must be convinced of the benefits—higher performance for their teams—if they are to become enthusiastic leaders of change. Above all, senior executives should encourage managers to think big: the new world of work opens up new possibilities for how companies define their boundaries and organize work. Distinctions among employers, employees, and customers are blurring. Innovation happens and tasks get done in new ways. Companies that take advantage of these trends—and indeed pioneer them—can lower their costs while significantly enhancing their value proposition to employees.