Zen and the Art of Innovation

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A close friend of mine, Shirish Deodhar, who has written multiple books on Building Innovation, led product companies and on metamorphosis from being an Entrepreneur to a Leader, is also the Co-founder and CEO of a start-up that has developed a software solution to promote wellness at work.

So what does employee wellness have to do with Innovation? I do think a lot.

We live in a world that is perpetually online. We are bombarded with external stimuli by gadgets and applications; be it personal/official emails, WhatsApp, chat, Facebook or games. A study has shown that on an average, we are interrupted once every 11 minutes while awake. We reach out for our cell phones numerous times. In fact, the person narrating this study told me that over the previous six hours he had checked his cell phone 183 times for a very short duration (between 15 and 30 seconds) – which implied he was polling for new messages when none had arrived.

Often, meetings extend by a few minutes, and if you have a tough secretary like mine (though no fault of hers, as it is my time that is under demand and there is no gap between meetings), you arrive at every meeting a few minutes late – worse still, under-prepared and with a just few points skimmed. Sometimes, important phone calls don’t escape you even when you are supposed to be asleep! In short, our attention spans are constantly being interrupted and we end up spending enormous amounts of time responding to these interruptions, and in the process, losing precious, uninterrupted time that is vital to finish the job at hand. Interestingly, the study talks of just 4 to 6 hours of real output from the almost 9-12 hours that we are engaged in work. This leads to work-life imbalance; distance from our families, increasing stress levels, shortage of time and more work to catch up on.

Now where does that leave us any time to innovate? We know that innovation comes about from a need for simplification with reduced inputs, effort, time, reviews, process steps etc. and sometimes, innovation is a by-product of failed experiments. But in each case, a highly aware state of mind, sensitivity towards others’ pain (and your own), and the readiness to spot and actively work towards making life easier for others is needed. The truth is, such a state of mind is difficult to achieve when everyone – living and “non-living (your smart phones, for example)” – is competing for your attention.

Is there a way we can create an environment that is conducive to increased attention spans without interruptions? An environment that allows us to actively balance the conflict between the urgent and the important and therefore brings creativity and awareness to the forefront?

Here are some easy steps to ponder:

  • Can teams have two “Golden Hours” of sixty minutes each, every day? We can use a flag or even your wrist watch on the desk. This is the time for concentrated work output with all devices including desk phones on silent. No checking of emails or messages unless something truly urgent comes up and someone interrupts us knowing very well that we are in the “silent zone”.
  • Can teams have an “Innovation Hour” which is a quiet hour, every fortnight or maybe even every month? Initially we will probably send some highly trivial entries, but, over time we will learn to consciously observe and produce some great ideas.
  • Should Innovation just be confined to work and customers? How about focusing time to develop ideas that improve camaraderie, home-work life balance, self-support groups, etc. that in turn, help us better connect with employees and their families?
  • HBR, in one of its recent issues, published that successful businesses do more than just control costs and win customers. Sometimes you have to break the rules and challenge the received wisdom about how things work. They call out five problem areas that may be endemic to an entire industry and a good starting point to research.
    1. An outdated purchase or usage experience
    2. A superfluous major expense category
    3. High financial risk for our customers
    4. Disengaged employees
    5. Detrimental side effects of products and services.

Finally, innovation is a state of mind – constantly challenging, constantly questioning and constantly evaluating. A little Zen in our lives and habits is necessary to transcend to this higher state of thinking that all of us are abundantly capable of.

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