Startups and entrepreneurs are drowning in the information overload, where the volume of data created is like a new Library of Congress every 15 minutes. That creates a huge gap between data and meaning, and makes quick decisions and action ever more difficult. We all need to take a little more time to think.
On the other end of the spectrum, some people “over-think” things to the point of inaction. Acting without thinking, and thinking without action, are both deadly to a startup. The challenge is to find the right balance, and to make the thinking deep and reflective thinking.
In his classic book, “Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization,” Daniel Patrick Forrester talks about how some successful entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates, former CEO of Microsoft, force some think time in their schedule by abandoning the office for a cabin in the woods every few months for some reflective thinking. Others simply reserve an hour every morning for private thinking, despite a densely packed schedule.
What are the issues and questions that these successful leaders reflect on within their own organizations, and related to their own behavior? Here are some key areas for reflective thinking, from my perspective, based on the research from Mr. Forrester:
- Think before you assert control. While none of us can stop the flow of data and the creation of content that swirls around us, we can control how we structure the moments that arise and our responses. As leaders, the control we assert in problem solving sets a tone that will be followed by the whole organization.
- Give full attention very selectively. Now we work in a state of giving our “continuous partial attention” to issues before us. While not all matters require deep thought, we find the ones that do are afforded equal footing with ones that don’t. We must come to a conclusion about the consequences of giving only partial attention to top initiatives.
- Carefully select communication methods. If email or text messaging is the default way you interact, then you have already declared where it sits in your hierarchy. While technology allows for speed and immediacy, it doesn’t usually convey the texture and empathy of face-to-face interaction that is key to many important issues.
- Recognize the limited value of disconnected short dialogues. In many ways, problem solving has devolved into a series of dialogues that take place across digital transmissions with occasional face-to-face interactions. Failure to think deeply about forward-looking events and big ideas will come at a cost.
- Book time to compose your thoughts. With the tethering to technology that happens to us throughout the course of a day, it is clear that we treat time with our thoughts as a low-level priority. Even if you can’t book a week away to thin, it isn’t hard to book a meeting with yourself, when you are off-limits to everything but your thoughts.
- Reflect carefully before delivering messages. When people demand immediacy from you, do you consider how the people on the other end will receive it, before you dash off a message? Sometimes multiple crafting and editing iterations are required as you think about the ramifications. Is an electronic message even the right answer?
Think-time and reflection don’t just happen when we are alone. Startups will inevitably engage in discourse and dialogue through meetings. You need to insure effective discourse in meetings (“thinking out loud”) by making sure there are no negative consequences to dissent and debate. Otherwise meetings will be perceived as a waste of time by the people who count.
While technology and the Internet allow you to act and react more quickly than ever before, you need more than ever to consider decisions reflectively before making them. In addition to solving problems the right way, make sure you are solving the right problems.