Thomas Edison wasn't much of a fisherman. But he was a great inventor. And the two are linked.
He was known to stroll to a pier near his laboratory, dangle his line in the water, and wait patiently for a fish to bite. He rarely caught anything, which may have to do with the fact he rarely used any bait. His main purpose, colleagues felt, was reflection rather than fishing. The peaceful interludes were a chance to cogitate, a break from work.
New Jersey-based consultant Daniel Forrester believes we all have to find similar moments of contemplation to be more effective in our careers. "It's about tapping into what makes us unique as human beings: reflection and conscience. The big innovations all are a product of reflection, getting a break from the tumult of immediacy that surrounds us," he said in an interview.
The author of Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization was moved to study the issue when reading an article about the now-legendary "think weeks" that Bill Gates took as the head of Microsoft. Armed with cans of diet Orange Crush and a stack of documents with ideas and proposals, he would isolate himself in his cottage and spend time pondering future possibilities for his tech empire.
It's a fascinating idea, but Mr. Forrester wondered why the CEO couldn't manage to find reflection space in the office. "He's Bill Gates. Why can't he shut the door and get time to think?" he asked in an interview.
Mr. Forrester believes we have to change that tendency – and not only for CEOs, but for everyone. Reflection, he explained, is the space between data and meaning.
It starts with think weeks, proper vacations and sabbaticals to refresh and reflect. Our brains continue to work on issues even at rest, and the subconscious can come up with some electrifying findings. So it's vital that a vacation be a true vacation, rather than pushing an employee, through social pressure or direct orders, to check e-mail a dozen times a day.
As for those who claim they can't be spared for a vacation, he retorts: "If the organization feels that a single employee can't take a vacation, there is something perverse going on."
Perhaps more importantly, reflection must come by carving out time at work for reflection, individually and in groups. He points to former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell, who had times set aside in his schedule to be alone with his thoughts.
Mr. Forrester has adopted the same approach. In a world of e-mails, texting, and cellphones, he said, "I had to come to grips with an existential question: Is multitasking possible? I came to the conclusion it is impossible and is decaying my ability to be the leader I want to be."
And no one is immune.
The problem is not the devices, but our Pavlovian response to them. When CEOs hold conference calls with their teams, he said, they would be "horrified" to know how few employees are actually paying full attention to the boss's words (or that of colleague). Instead, they are multitasking, checking and responding to e-mails and texts, or surfing the Web.
Because of this multitasking attitude, we assume that somebody at rest, not overtly working, is somebody we can and perhaps should disturb, instead of leaving the individual alone.
In the middle of the day, Jim Henson, creator of Sesame Street and the Muppets, would wander outside, sit under a tree, and reflect, Edison-like. His staff didn't view that as a chance to engage him with their latest problem. "I'm really, really glad nobody interrupted him. He brought joy to my life from the ideas he developed in those periods of reflection," Mr. Forrester said.
Finally, we have to learn how to be better at group reflection, creating safe spaces for individuals to challenge orthodoxies and build on each other's creative inspirations. This involves:
Shutting off technology during meetings
Focus on the task at hand. When you walk into a room where somebody has their laptop up, the odds of you not doing the same is zero, Mr. Forrester said. If you're on a subway platform, intending to take some time to think, and everyone else is checking their cellphone, you'll do the same. It's human nature to follow others.
Arranging for a proper facilitator
Somebody needs to preside over the meeting, coming into the room with a clear purpose, a clear idea of how people can work together, and a definite sense of where they are heading. "They are there to make sure the sum of the parts is greater than the individual components. That's why you hold a meeting," Mr. Forrester said.
The facilitator needs to telegraph clearly to everyone where they are in the meeting – when, for example, they are being general and expansive, and when deductive and logical.
"Your greatest ideas, greatest insights, and greatest joy will come on the moments when you can reflect on who you are as a person and as a knowledge worker," he concluded.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter