The benefits of un­plug­ging as a team

Finweek English Edition - - INSIDE - BY ZACHARY FIRST

When turn­around leg­end Lou Ger­st­ner took the helm at IBM i n 1993, one of his bold­est early ac­tions was star­tlingly sim­ple. As the pro­jec­tor bulb warmed up for the rit ualised theatre of yet an­other se­nior man­age­ment meet­ing, Ger­st­ner walked to the front of the room, turned off the ma­chine and said, as po­litely as he could: “Let’s just talk about your busi­ness.” Two decades later − de­spite that breath of fresh air and even as the over­head has given way to the touch screen − gad­gets are stil l suf­fo­cat­ing se­nior ex­ec­u­tives’ best think­ing. IT, once an ac r ony m fu l l of t he prom­ise of

‘ in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy’, has shifted the fo­cus of ex­ec­u­tive teams too much onto the ‘T’ and not nearly enough onto the ‘ I’.

A grow­ing body of neu­ro­science re­search has re­vealed the ex­act ways in which in­for­ma­tion-age tech­nolo­gies cut against the nat­u­ral grain of the hu­man mind. Our un­der­stand­ing of all kinds of in­for­ma­tion is shaped by our phys­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion with that i nfor­ma­tion. Move f rom pa­per to screen and your brain loses valu­able “topo­graph­i­cal” mark­ers for mem­ory and in­sight.

Alt hough sc r e e ns have t hei r strengths in pre­sent­ing in­for­ma­tion − t hey a re, for ex­am­ple, good at en­cour­ag­ing brows­ing − t hey a re lousy at help­ing us ab­sorb, process and re­tain in­for­ma­tion from a fo­cused source. And good old hand­writ­ing, though far slower a process for most of us than typing, deep­ens con­cep­tual un­der­stand­ing more ef­fec­tively than does tak­ing notes on a com­puter − even when we’re typing with­out any in­ter­net or so­cial me­dia dis­trac­tions.

In short, when you want to im­prove how well you re­mem­ber, un­der­stand and make sense of cru­cial in­for­ma­tion about your or­gan­i­sa­tion, some­times it’s best to put down the tablet and pick up a pen­cil.

I have seen t his t r uth re­vealed count­less times dur­ing my f ive years as se­nior man­ag­ing direc­tor at the Drucker In­sti­tute, where I lead the Un/ Work­shops con­sult­ing prac­tice. Over the course of one to two days, we take ex­ec­u­tive teams through a fast­paced, trans­for­ma­tional ex­pe­ri­ence that re­quires them to power down their de­vices and power up their brains.

We re­cently worked with ap­par­e­lin­dus­try lead­ers who are fo­cused on de­sign, sourc­ing, man­u­fac­tur­ing and brand man­age­ment to pro­to­type a more in­no­va­tive, re­spon­sive and re­spon­si­ble sup­ply chain. The work­shop did not in­clude a sin­gle Pow­er­Point slide or dig­i­tal sim­u­la­tion.

In­stead, we placed par­tic­i­pants in small groups and equipped them with just some prompts, a box of pens and a few sheets of pa­per. Peo­ple l ike to say that they “connect” with dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, but t here is no match for the phys­i­cal­ity of en­er­gised col­lab­o­ra­tion − peo­ple hud­dling side by side, ev­ery­one scrib­bling notes, all watch­ing their work take shape in real time, with­out jump­ing pre­ma­turely to the air of f in­al­ity that a slick dig­i­tal tem­plate pro­vides.

Group mem­bers were a ble t o ac­com­plish a tremen­dous amount of de­sign work and de­ci­sion-mak­ing in a very short amount of time. In­stead of push­ing pix­els around to make the best show of half-baked ideas, they pushed ideas around to ar­rive at plans with real prom­ise.

When an ex­ec­u­tive team un­plugs for t he f i rst t i me, t here is of­ten a mo­ment when the power of set­ting aside tech­nol­ogy shines through. We once asked a global tech­nol­ogy f irm’s lead­er­ship team to try a ‘ Stone Age’ so­lu­tion to help mem­bers f ig­ure out how best to im­ple­ment a newly hatched strat­egy.

Hereti­cal as it seemed, the meet­ing didn’t begin with a full re­hash of the group’s 80-slide strat­egy deck. In­stead, t he l ead­er­ship team i mme­di­ately broke into smaller groups and be­gan a 20-minute as­sign­ment: Work­ing on one piece of pa­per per group, par­tic­i­pants had to write down the an­swers to a few ba­sic ques­tions about the heart of the firm’s new strat­egy (on which they had al­ready been briefed many times).

I watched as one top ex­ec­u­tive pon­tif­i­cated about the strat­egy to his table­mates − and then drew a to­tal blank when handed the pen. Due to his se­nior­ity, I sus­pect, his col­leagues didn’t call him on his fail­ure. But the nearly blank page didn’t lie to any­one in the room, in­clud­ing the ex­ec­u­tive him­self.

The disc us­sion t hat f ol l owed (why are we hav­ing so much trou­ble a ns wer i ng s ome of t hes e ba si c ques­tions?) un­cov­ered the es­sen­tial dis­con­nect be­tween the strat­egy and the team’s un­der­stand­ing of the cus­tomer it was sup­posed to serve. I’m con­vinced that the usual Pow­er­Point pa­rade would not have ex­posed that gap.

Zachary First is se­nior man­ag­ing direc­tor of the Drucker In­sti­tute, a so­cial en­ter­prise based at Clare­mont Grad­u­ate Uni­ver­sity in Cal­i­for­nia.

© 2015 Har­vard Busi­ness School Pub­lish­ing Corp.


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