photo by Shaun Battick

photo by Shaun Battick

The topic of telecommuting has been cropping up a lot lately, and it’s not just Marissa Mayer’s new dictum about face time at Yahoo.  A number of participants in our recent presentations on managing change have found this to be an important issue in their companies.

So I was interested to read Jennifer Glass’s op-ed in the New York Times this week. She makes an excellent case for why working from home is a good idea.

Yet a work force culture based on long hours at the office with little regard for family or community does not inevitably lead to strong productivity or innovation. Two outdated ideas seem to underlie the Yahoo decision: first, that tech companies can still operate like the small groups of 20-something engineers that founded them; and second, the most old-fashioned of all, that companies get the most out of their employees by limiting their autonomy.

Glass is skeptical about recent claims that casual work encounters are a sizable source of innovation.  (It’s the reason why all the bathrooms at Apple headquarters on are on the main floor.)  She says:

The notion that impromptu conversations with colleagues in the cafeteria are the core of innovation seems a bit simplistic; in my experience, they are just as likely to produce talk of better jobs at competing firms or last night’s “American Idol” winner. Besides, much of this “research” simply shows that workers who collaborate with others in loose networks generate better ideas. It doesn’t suggest that the best way to create new products and services is by isolating your employees in the silo of a single location.

Read the whole piece, if you’re interested in this topic at all.  I think Glass makes a great case for using technology to create a more productive and more humane work system.


Photo by Stephen Danelian

The cellist Yo-Yo Ma, quoted in Imagine by Jonah Lehrer:

When people ask me how they should approach performance, I always tell them that the professional musician should aspire to the state of the beginner….To become a professional, you need to go through years of training.  You get criticized by all your teachers, and you worry about all the critics.  You are constantly being judged.  But if you get onstage and all you think about is what the critics are going to say, if all you are doing is worrying, then you will play terribly.  You will be tight and it will be a bad concert.

Instead, one needs to constantly remind oneself to play with the abandon of the child who is just learning the cello.   Because why is that kid playing?  He is playing for pleasure.  He is playing because making this sound, expressing this melody, makes him happy. 

That is still the only good reason to play.

We’re all about practice, so I’ve spent the past few (very busy) weeks playing with the ideas in my last post:  that in the creative process, distractibility might be more valuable than concentrated focus.

Since I’ve sometimes tended to see my own darting mind as a bit of a shameful liability, I thought I’d just let it go where it wanted and observe the results. What if these studies are correct, and the capacity for being distracted is a bit of a gift, rather than a shortcoming?

[At this point, unsure where to go next,  I stopped and checked my email.  Back again!]

I’ve noticed that shifting to another activity for a brief time seems to operate as a kind of mental “refresh” button.  I don’t know if the distraction makes some obscure connection or shifts thinking to another part of the brain, but here I am, working at a good clip.  My writing process seems to alternate between focused concentration and distracted poking about.  Sometimes the oscillation is rapid; sometimes I’ll focus for ten or fifteen minutes at a time before skittering off.

[Listening to the birds outside.  Noticing a bill I have to pay tomorrow.  Going off to check an email that just came in.  Be right back.]

All right, I’ll stop trying to be James Joyce here.  But after my experiments of the last couple of weeks, it’s clear to me that the distractibility that my teachers found frustrating is a good friend to my own creative process.

New solutions come from new connections, and too much concentration at the wrong time can block our view of those unexpected relationships between seemingly random ideas.  What if Newton had been too busy with calculation to notice that mythic apple’s fall?  Or if Archimedes (the Greek, not the owl this time) had been too busy working on the problem of the king’s crown to bother taking a bath?

My advice:  forget trying to be a good little pupil.  Rush over to the window of your mind and see what’s going on in the schoolyard.  Let’s show some gratitude for the ideas that float around us, unnoticed.  And notice a few of them.




More from Jonah Lehrer’s ImagineHe’s describing a study by neuroscientists at Harvard and the University of Toronto:

…the ability to ignore outside stimuli…is typically seen as an essential component of productivity….[Those test subjects] who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their previous accomplishments.  (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.)  According to the scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness.

The distractible subjects took in more information and had a less rigid view of what might be relevant to the task at hand.  They were more open to unexpected relationships between concepts — the essence of creativity.

I’m glad to hear this, because I’ve noticed that my own mind seems to be more — what’s that sound?  Oh, sorry. — distractible than it used to be.  (Or perhaps I’m just noticing it more.)  In any case, my irritating inability to focus when a radio’s on in the background might actually be a fount of creativity.

What was I saying?

Find the idea, by Khalid Albai, via Flickr Creative Commons

Had a chance last week to practice with the idea I mentioned in my last post that during creative work, the feeling of frustration signals the brain to try a different approach.  Since that hit-the-wall feeling is my least favorite part of creating something new, I was interested in what would happen if I interpreted it as a helpful phase, rather than as a torment or as a sign of my particular inadequacy.

Well, I spent several 13-hour days last week working on a new, exciting project for one of our clients.  Lots of design and writing; lots of puzzlement and fog before it comes clear.  But this time, when the frustration hit,  I thought, “Good! This means that my brain is about to throw the problem over to the right hemisphere for a different kind of problem-solving.”

And it actually worked that way!  I stayed quiet for a bit, and then I could feel a different way of thinking start up.  The room looked brighter; I began to get a sense of how we could work out different elements of the design.  Pretty soon the flow of ideas was back.  I could see a clearer path ahead.

This pattern happened a number of times during those long days.  And it was nothing new — I’ve noticed the on-again, off-again rhythm of problem-solving for many years.

But what was different — and tremendously valuable — was the sense that my frustration was an inevitable, even welcome part of the process.  So instead of becoming angry with the impasse, or fearful, or self-doubting, I waited it out.  It didn’t take long, as it happened.  And in the meantime, I wasn’t wasting all that energy on being frustrated about being frustrated.

I chose the illustration for this post because it shows the idea as the central point of a labyrinth.  I’ve loved labyrinths for many years, because despite complicated meanderings, each is actually a single path to its center.  Getting there is inevitable, no matter how hopeless it may seem on the way.

It reminds me that our minds are made for creativity, if we follow the path that’s already there.


I’m so excited about reading Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine:  How Creativity Works (my favorite science writer on my favorite topic) that I plan to post a series of short pieces on ideas I glean from it.

Let’s start with a quote:

Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we’ve hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next. When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve.  Because such failures contradict the romantic version of events — there is nothing triumphant about a false start — we forget all about them….

The danger of telling this narrative is that the feeling of frustration — the act of being stumped — is an essential part of the creative process.

Lehrer goes on to make a convincing case that the very feeling of getting nowhere is a signal to the brain to try another mode of problem-solving:  the underground, barely sensed, beautifully powerful process of insight.

The brain shifts away from the analytical, left-hemisphere mode that we’re taught is the proper way to approach a problem.  The solving moves to the holistic, big-picture right hemisphere.  The anterior superior temporal gyrus, just over the right ear, becomes active; its specialty seems to be making unusual connections.  A burst of gamma waves, a sudden sense of illumination, and aha!  The answer arrives.

That’s probably my favorite moment in life.  The solution seems obvious — a given, in more ways than one.  We don’t have the sense of “I thought that up”; it more like something was handed to us, unearned.  Perhaps that’s why we’re a little suspicious of our own creativity:  we’re taught that hard work is the only respectable way to achieve.

And Lehrer makes the point that hard work is definitely part of the full creative process — more on that in later posts.

But let’s never discount the beautiful way our creativity transforms frustration into solutions.  And let’s honor the sense of hitting a brick wall.  It’s cuing the brain to try a better way.

New study on puzzles, problem-solving and laughter, demonstrating that people find it easier to solve puzzles through a flash of insight after they’ve watched something funny.  I love this from two points of view:

As a puzzle maniac, I agree that even thinking about a good one (cryptic crosswords are my drug of choice) induces a pleasant mind-state – something they found in the study.  And that moment of insight when the answer suddenly appears is one of the great joys of life, to me.

And as a creator of leadership-skills practice sessions which always combine laughter with serious practice, I constantly see how insight follows the loosening-up process of watching a funny live scene.

Glad to have the neurology to prove it!

Online training has become an accepted, often cost-efficient way of training in the corporate setting.  E-learning allows people to work at their own pace, during their own available time.  But what’s lost?

I thought back to a recent workshop we gave, in which 24 newly-minted supervisors watched each other deal with various realistic management situations, live and impromptu.  Participants commented on how valuable it was to see how other people handle things – even if their style is different from yours (or perhaps especially so!). Even though back on the job these folks will often have to act alone, the collaboration they experience in training helps give them a repertoire of possible approaches that they’re more likely to remember when they need them.

We often emphasize the practice aspect of our workshops, and of course that’s vital:  nothing makes learning stick like actually trying it out.  But the group process may be equally important for topics (like supervisor skillls) that involve social interaction.  In a culture that still tends to overemphasize the individual, it’s useful to reaffirm the wisdom of crowds.

Photo by Jill Brazel of a Workplace Interactors program