Thursday, January 26, 2006



On “Marketplace” the other day, an academic was talking about the latest round of layoffs at Ford. She mentioned that the danger in laying off so many people at once is that you become so thin-staffed at the operational level that the room for new ideas to germinate gets squeezed out. The organization gets better and better at doing the same old thing with fewer people, the market moves on, and it efficiencies itself right into oblivion.

It sounded familiar.

At a relatively ‘mature’ organization, the layers of bureaucratic goo encrusting even the simplest tasks thicken and harden almost imperceptibly over time, like sedimentary rock. When the sedimentation increases but the staffing decreases, you get some very harried people running around trying to remember which step is next, taking focus off the very real changes going on in the outside world.

When it’s time to cut costs, managers look for slack in the budget. In the short term, obviously, this makes sense. Over time, though, I can’t help but wonder.

No less an observer than Aristotle noted that contemplation requires leisure (which is why he wouldn’t let women, or slaves, or workers, vote – they don’t have the requisite leisure to discuss matters of public import). 3M famously tells its researches to set aside some of their time for projects of their own design and choosing, and supposedly some of its best breakthroughs came from that. Teens and twentysomethings produce many of the breakthroughs in culture and technology in part, I suspect, because they aren’t distracted by the obligations of real life: childcare, earning a living, etc. Even the idea of a ‘sabbatical’ derives from ‘sabbath,’ or time of rest, since it was thought that leisure is necessary to recharge the creative batteries. (These days, of course, sabbaticals have to be justified with projects. We don’t trust rest.)

I’ve noticed many of my best ideas come to me in the car. I think it’s because I’m not ‘on call’ in the car, so my mind can just go wherever it goes. In the office, it’s a stream of emergencies, purchase requisitions, and quotidian details. Faculty who can be brilliant in their own fields often appear organizationally illiterate, even after decades of working in the same place, because they just never bothered to learn the reasons behind the policies. I think it’s a form of self-defense, trying to preserve some free space for creative thought, but it looks horribly self-indulgent to those of us tasked with cleaning up the same old messes, over and over again. It’s understandable, if sometimes maddening.

Honestly, part of the appeal of blogging is that it’s outside the normal, well-worn daily grooves. In cyberspace, if not in the office, I can air out ideas and see what happens.

Even at the office, the best ideas seem to come when I go places I normally don’t. I’ve written before about ‘listening down,’ but listening sideways is good, too. The trick is in not confusing productive casting about with basic loafing. A nuanced appreciation of slack, if you will.

Where do you get your best ideas?

I often get my best ideas as I'm reading before bed. I keep a pad and pen next to the bed just for writing them down. I also try to mull them over again when I wake up.

I get ideas while blogging too. Reading blogs, that is. I think reading always provides a spark for me.

I try to take time at work for thinking. It's hard sometimes.
many of my best ideas come in the shower, so much so that when I was in college and got stuck on a paper, I'd take a shower, day or night.

that and long walks/bike rides.
My best ideas always come while working out. Especially if I'm (a) outside, and/or (b) running or walking.
So funny that you mention this today... I just blogged about the value of staring off into space and doing nothing, and how revitalizing it can be. You said it much more eloquently than I, but I was trying to get to what you said: we're so busy and swamped and putting out fires all the time that we never have time to contemplate and percolate anymore...
My partner gets ideas in the shower too, and I get them while reading, or walking, or on the subway. I get a lot of great ideas attending talks or in conversations, there's something about talking things out or listening to them being worked out orally/aurally/verbally that I find creates connections for me. I've been called a "collaborative learner" and I think that is true, and it is one of the reasons why sitting on my own writing the diss isn't a great strategy for me because I'm not bouncing anything off anyone else so I'm not making connections. One of my solutions has been to have conversations with the material/authors that I'm working with, that sometimes kick-starts my idea process.
My best ideas come in my daily commute. I spend an hour on a student bus each morning on my way to campus, and it's fairly quiet, as most students take the opportunity to nap or study, and that in between time, between home and school, between real life and academia, is when my mind is most relaxed and most fertile.
In meetings for other responsibilities. I keep my PDA or a scratchpad of paper to scribble them down or risk losing them.
I'm with ancarett. I get my best ideas while I'm supposed to be focusing on something else (meeting, seminar, etc.) Its likely that something being said in the meeting triggers a mental connection with some other project and pop! a new idea forms. And I always have a notebook along (also good in boring meetings/seminars for writing to-do lists)
I get my best ideas walking. When I commute by car, I lose valuable thinking time.

The downside of acquiring organizational literacy is that it saps directly from the work you want to do. Once it is known that you can handle a responsibility, or a boring bureaucratic task, congratulations! It's yours! No one else will take it back, ever. I have found in each position I've had that I become known as a "go to" person over time, and I lose an ability to accomplish any of my own work between 9 and 5. That doesn't leave much other time for papers, proposals, or creativity.
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