Innovation Lessons from Childhood

Did you learn all you really need to know about innovation in kindergarten? Funny thing, but as we grow-up and get “smarter”, we tend to make things more complicated than they need to be, and innovation is no exception. Innovation is complex enough to begin with; so let’s look at a lesson we learned as children that can help simplify it and deliver more impact.

My wife has taught four and five year olds for over 25 years now, and occasionally, I’m lucky enough to visit one of her classrooms and see her at work. When I do, I usually learn (or re-learn) something myself. During one visit, it struck me how smooth playtime was. You would think that a room full of five year olds would be a real beehive of activity; while the children were certainly displaying all of the energy and enthusiasm you would expect, they weren’t flitting from one activity to the next. Since five year olds don’t have the longest attention spans, I marveled, “How do you keep them so focused?”

“It’s easy” she replied. “They know they’re not allowed to start a new activity until they finish playing with the old one and put it away.” Wow!

What a simple, but powerful lesson – Focus on one thing at a time and finish it before moving on to the next task. The children know they can’t jump from working on a puzzle over to the sand table until they’ve finished, picked up all the pieces, put them back in the box and put it back on the shelf.

To observe the world today, you would think it was just the opposite. Multi-tasking would appear to be critical to productivity. Why else would we hail it as a “must have” talent? Why would job descriptions list it as a required skill? We’ve forgotten that simple lesson from childhood. The reality is that multi-tasking is a myth: a myth that destroys productivity. That’s right; people can’t do multiple things at the same time.

Don’t take my word for it. Cognitive research has verified that people are incapable of multi-tasking.* Yes, almost anyone can walk and chew gum at the same time. But for any task that takes cognitive function such as thinking, writing, speaking, planning, or designing, we actually switch-task. We switch back and forth between tasks. That’s why talking on the phone and driving at the same time leads to the dangerous behaviors we’ve all seen like swerving, driving through red lights, or veering across multiple lanes to get to a missed exit.

Physical peril aside, the real problem is that multi-tasking is a huge productivity killer. Your brain takes time to switch from one activity to another; for highly complex tasks, like new product development, it can take 20 minutes to get back into a highly productive flow. Many times people struggle to get 20 minutes of uninterrupted work, so they rarely get into the zone. Additionally, when you switch tasks, you often forget some part of what you had been working on previously. Compound this with frequent switching throughout the day and it’s a wonder anything ever gets done.

How does this affect innovation? A study of engineers found that the percentage of value added work dropped rapidly when they were assigned to more than 2 projects at a time. With 5 projects, value add had dropped to only 20%. As multi-tasked as people are today, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s taking longer and longer to get all of the work done. What a demoralizing effect.

How can you avoid this problem? Simply limit the number of project assignments to just a few at a time and encourage focused effort on one task at a time. I routinely find companies assigning people to 5 or even 6 projects; so this one change could easily double productivity. Additionally, think about how much more engaged your workforce would be if 60-80% of their efforts were adding value rather than only 20-30%.

What strategies can help you eliminate multi-tasking? The best of time management teaches the importance of being in the moment and focusing on the task at hand. When you are working on something, commit, focus, and work on that task until you complete it. For larger tasks, try putting blocks of time on your calendar.

To do this, you’ll also need to find a way to eliminate distractions:
1) Don’t check email mail during that time. Turn off any email notifier, and try to limit yourself to check them only at two or three set times each day.
2) Ditto for voicemail. Change your message so callers know you’ll get back to them in a few hours. Also, let them know how they can reach you in an emergency – which it will almost never be.
3) Ban Blackberry’s in the office and in meetings. It’s like an IV for email addicts.
4) Shut the open door policy. It hurts everyone’s productivity when people drop in any time they feel like it. Set aside certain times when your door is open and use the other times for productive work. If it’s an emergency, they’ll interrupt. Better yet, they’ll solve it without you.
5) Encourage your team members to do the same.

The Takeway:

In kindergarten, we learned that it’s best to focus on one thing at a time. As adults trying to jam as much as possible into our busy days, we quickly forget that lesson. For more impact from your innovation:
• Assign people to a maximum of two projects at the same time.
• Encourage people to work on one task at a time.
• Support team members in eliminating distractions by managing email, voice mail, and open door times.
• Communicate these changes and the reasons behind them across the organization so people understand and support the change.

End Notes:
* Rubinstein, Joshua S. and David E. Meyer, eds. Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching, Journal of Experimental Psychology – Human Perception and Performance, Vol. 27, No.4

Copyright 2009. Guided Innovation Group LLC and Mike Dalton. All rights reserved.

About Michael Dalton (30 Posts)

Mike Dalton's Guided Innovation Group, works with companies that want more impact form new product innovation in less time. Clients credit Mike with helping them double new product profits and cut time to market by more than half. He's also the author of the book Simplifying Innovation: Doubling speed to market and new product profits - with your existing resources. You can download free sample chapters at Simplifying Innovation. Prior to starting the Guided Innovation Group, he had 24 years of experience growing new and existing businesses as a general management and business development executive for the industrial polymer division of the multi-billion dollar S.C. Johnson & Son family of companies. He holds an MBA in marketing & finance from the University of Chicago and a chemical engineering, gas, and energy technology degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology. You can learn more about getting more impact from your innovation by visiting Guided Innovation where they offer an array of reports and other free innovation resources.


Comments

  1. Pamela Behrens says

    These are absolute words of wisdom. I learned these truths just out of college, yet all the years that followed, I saw these truths valued less and less. I watched the chaos and frustration build around me. The few times I mentioned the “more focused” way of doing things, I was looked at like I had two heads. I eventually kept quiet wondering why no one else could see this….

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