Years ago, I managed the R&D and product development for a group of highly skilled, highly educated materials engineers. Our building and lab were located no more than a ten-minute walk from the science library of Case Western in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the premier science and engineering universities in the country. At least one hour each week, I would make it a point to take a notebook and sit in the university’s library, sometimes perusing the latest scientific journals, other times simply contemplating my department’s activities. By separating myself from my normal business environment and daily routines, I gave my brain a break. It inspired me to think, digest, process, and explore ideas outside the norm.
I encouraged my team to do the same. I even let my team know that I considered these mini-retreats important enough to factor into their annual evaluation and review. To my dismay, few took me up on the suggestion. It was hard to blame them, as the concept of such a mini retreat was completely foreign to the company’s upper management, who believed that only “real” work could be done in a lab.
In fact, one day, upon returning from my weekly library session, my direct boss, the VP of Operations, scolded me for wasting company time thinking in a library. “Joel,” he said with a completely straight face, “We don’t pay you to think, we pay you to develop new products.” I saw the writing on the wall that day and very soon afterward found an opportunity to leave the company.
Innovative and creative thought are a combination of people, planning, and performance activities that require different mental frameworks to reach their full potential. Allowing people to carve out time to hang out in a different physical location—often as simple as moving to the coffee shop around the corner—can spur different thinking. It’s a small investment relative to the long-term benefits.
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