The benefits of unplugging as a team
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.
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.