With nearly every organisation across the globe desperately searching for original ideas, it can often seem like there is little left to pan for in the creative waters. Businesses are willing to throw in plenty of resources to find even a nugget of innovation that will put them ahead in their market, but this often yields no significant results
So how can businesses foster true innovation? Adam Grant, Organisational Psychologist and Professor of Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, believes that procrastination could be the answer.
If you have ever been faced with a challenging task that required all of your brainpower, you are probably quite familiar with this behaviour. In fact, the author of this very article has clicked away to re-check emails, organise files, edit old writing, make coffee and look for sources at least 20 times before getting into the flow of writing.
University of Calgary Professor and Expert in procrastination Dr Piers Steel believes that around 15 to 20 per cent of the population constantly put off tasks until the last minute. Despite common conceptions, the root of this behaviour does not come from perfectionism and is instead linked to a variety of other factors. Some people are genetically predisposed to procrastination and in other cases, a lack of confidence in one’s self or apprehension towards the task at hand can cause people to put it off.
Rather than write off procrastinators as lazy, uncommitted and unsuccessful, Grant decided to open his mind to the way people approach projects and deadlines. This was spurred when one of Grant’s students discovered that moderate procrastinators had more creative and useful ideas than those who rushed into the task.
In another experiment, Grant and his team tasked a group to create business proposals. For one set, they told them to start right away yet for another set, the team purposely distracted them with video games at varying intervals. They found that moderate procrastinators were 16 per cent more creative in their business plans than both “pre-crastinators” and “chronic procrastinators”.
Here is Adam Grant’s full Ted Talk that delves deeper into the habits of true “Originals”:
Procrastination is only effective if it fosters incubation. This means getting familiar with the task at hand, the requirements, the limits and the resources available before you put it down for a while. This is a key part of any creative process. Allowing this time to work a project through the deeper gears in the mind and sub-consciously work through the problem is more likely to create the Eureka Moment that organisations put so much effort into finding.
True creativity and original thinking cannot occur within strict confines and rigid processes. After all, Grant himself says that Originals “doubt the default” and look for a better way of getting things done. Therefore, allowing this freedom to test, re-build and even drop ideas is a vital step in fostering creativity.
So what are the key takeaways of Grant’s talk and the science of procrastination to apply to your organisation?
1. If handled incorrectly, Procrastination can be a productivity killer.
Like most factors in the workplace, procrastination needs to be balanced. While fresh new ideas are a positive thing to strive for, productivity is also an important area to maintain. Chronic procrastinators will never produce creative ideas, or even any ideas at all, before the final deadline.
There are ways that organisations can help keep procrastinators focused on the deadline. According to research conducted by the University of Michigan, setting the goal in days to completion rather than a date on the calendar can make employees feel that the deadline is more imminent. Participants are therefore more likely to spur into action and hit the perfect mix between incubating and action
2. Getting there first is not the end game
While many organisations love to function under the belief of first-mover advantage, Grant believes that this isn’t the true way to create original ideas, products and services.
The act of waiting, incubating, crafting and perfecting leads to innovation. Edison most likely didn’t invent the lightbulb first, but he did make one which was commercially viable. You can bet more people have heard of Edison than Woodward, Evans or Volta.
There is a lot to be said about the Pioneers that create new markets, but developing a valuable niche or advantage as a Settler is an equally worthwhile pursuit.
3. For every good idea, there are a box full of bad ones.
If you look under the roof of the most innovative technology companies in the world, you will find that for every smartphone, driverless car or other gadget that powers through the market, there were 50+ prototypes dropped along the way.
Becoming comfortable with failure and dropped ideas, maybe even celebrating them, is important to fostering innovation. Everyone has a fear of failure, but businesses can re-frame this to keep up creative momentum.
For example, Head of X (formerly Google X) Astro Teller stated in a Vancouver TED Talk that actively pursuing failure has led to their most ground-breaking inventions.
“We get excited and cheer, ‘Hey! How are we going to kill our project today?’” he said. “Enthusiastic scepticism isn’t the enemy of boundless optimism; it’s optimism’s perfect partner.”
4. Doubt ideas, not the individual.
As mentioned earlier, apprehension is a major driver of procrastination. However, Grant points out that self-doubt and ideas-doubt have drastically different effects. While self-doubt creates pitfalls, stalls and upsets, ideas-doubt elevates employees to challenge conventional thinking and rework the problem from a new angle.
For managers, it is important to ensure criticism is directed at the idea, rather than the individual. Not exactly a novel idea, but it has more impact than you may realise. The power of “I think you can do better” is vast, propelling workers to learn, re-think and overcome challenges across projects.
As long as you have the right mindset and support systems in place, putting it off today may mean coming up with the winning idea tomorrow. Trusting your team to take their time, drop projects and leave things to the last minute could be the key to striking innovation gold.