Editor’s note: Eric Jackson, a technology consultant and developer, is a regular contributor to Local Tech Wire. His column appears on Tuesdays.
BLACK MOUNTAIN,What is required to sustain effectiveness and high performance, significant competitive advantage, and so on? How does one maintain it not for one year, but year after year? While there is certainly no single secret, there is arguably one particularly important requirement for sustaining any kind of excellence.
Socrates said that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” prompting a great many people to counter that “an unlived life is not worth examining.” True enough, on both counts.
The two statements seem vaguely contradictory, but what they really do is highlight the need for two approaches that counter-balance one another. They call for a balance of two minds, one of action, another of reflection.
The first mind is about doing. This is not thoughtless doing; indeed, the mind of action seeks and selects options, builds and executes strategies, decides and does whatever is needed. Nevertheless, the mind of action is always purposeful, oriented toward results, and strongly present- and future-oriented.
The second mind is about reflection and perspective. Rather than focus on what must be done now and in the future, the reflective mind spends a good deal of time considering what has been. Its ideal, however, is not history, but using history to stand outside of time, to gain the perspective of a different level.
These two minds are critical to one another, and either alone is handicapped. Without the input that comes from action and dealing with concrete situations in real time, the reflective mind is prone to wheel-spinning and infertile philosophizing. Without the wisdom that comes from reflection, the active mind lacks context for its strategy and, most importantly, is handicapped in learning. Avoiding action is not just paralysis. Avoiding action removes the greatest source of understanding and theory: the learning that comes from putting theory into practice. On the other hand, avoiding reflection discards that valuable information and so inhibits learning and leads to inflexibility in the face of change.
These two minds do not, of course, have to work simultaneously. It is reasonable to work in one mode for a period of time, perhaps even years, and then to spend some time in the other, reflecting on what has happened and considering what can be learned from the experience. Nevertheless, it is probably better to alternate the two much more frequently.
In fact, the interdependence of these two modes means that, more than simply alternating, each should actually lead to the other. One focus of reflection should be to generate things to try and theories to test. And an important focus of action should be to test theory and generate information and experience to learn from by reflection. A recent Harvard Business Review article on management at Toyota provides an excellent example of one way this might be applied at the small scale, directly on a production line. There, every process improvement is formulated as an experiment, one thought out thoroughly enough to predict exactly what impact is expected so that learning can occur both when an improvement fails and when it succeeds better than expected.
So how does one achieve a balance between action and reflection?
A time to reflect
The first and most important thing for most of us is to create time for reflection, since this is often first thing cut in the rush to handle crises and deadlines.
Within an organization, avoid separating responsibilities for action and reflection. Just as Toyota expects its line workers to do the bulk of the thinking, so thinkers must do and doers think. Seek to balance the thinkers and the doers in your organization and within smaller teams.
Subject yourself regularly to someone who can question you from a different perspective, an outsider in some important respect. Boards of advisors, personal coaches, consultants and friends, all are potentially valuable resources and support to help kick off meta-level thinking.
Generate some simple questions for regular consideration that support both modes. Are you making effective progress toward your goals? Are your goals still the right ones? Is the environment undergoing change so that your assumptions may need to be re-questioned? Are you translating the results of reflection and analysis effectively into action? Spend time collectively and individually considering these and similar questions on a regular basis — at least monthly, and perhaps more often.
Like Toyota, think about every action and decision as an experiment. Try to think through what results you expect, write down the predictions, and then make sure that you follow up and study the results, whether quantitative or qualitative. Every time things go worse or better than you expect, there is an inherent invitation to consider why.
Think about how your processes engage both thinkers and doers, and make sure that both are rewarded. If employees are penalized for taking time to think, that capability will be incented out of the system. If experiments that may fail are penalized, the capacity for action can be damaged.
In the end, the watchword is balance. In business, a life either unexamined or unlived is eventually unsustainable.
Ideas? Suggestions? Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric Jackson is the founder of DeepWeave. He has built his career pioneering software solutions to particularly large and difficult problems. In 2000, Eric co-founded Ibrix, Inc. He is the inventor of the Ibrix distributed file system, a parallel file storage system able to scale in size and performance to millions of terabytes.