A weekly meeting, Wednesdays from 9-11 to define that new market approach? Working on the new business model next Wednesday all day? A new strategy facing the new speed and some new opponents on the market at that posh business hotel next Friday/Saturday, some sailing included? Planning on embracing a new opportunity that just occurs in no time at a due offsite? It never really works. Why? Because these approaches lack time, depth and distance for the complex problems at hand. You’ve been there and you’ve been disappointed.
I (and certainly not just me) discovered that time, depth and distance are incredibly important but also incredibly unmanaged aspects in work.
A few years ago, I met Claudia Kotchka. She was responsible for introducing Design Thinking at Procter & Gamble. The two sentences I can remember even when waking up at 3am are:
- „When introducing a new approach, go where the suction is.“
- „Basically, what I did was buying time for the teams to think.“
That made me aware that a large part of my job is buying time from companies to enable them to think deep.
When a company thinks about the next operational improvement, a small review meeting of 90 minutes may just be fine.
When a product team thinks of a nifty feature to increase customer engagement in a specific corner of their product, that may just be fine.
When we think about the concept of a new app, we need more time and depth and distance.
When we think about a news strategy or business case, we need even more time, depth and distance.
When we think about the next step in org design and the demands it needs to fulfil on all kinds of vectors, this is a very demanding, complex and deep problem – that needs time and depth.
Do you remember the effect when you last had a long walk or run, where you thought up something great, with immense clarity? Depth (undisturbed time).
Do you remember the last time when you had a challenging thought and had think it over for 28 times over the course of a few months? Depth (time, distance and repetition).
We need different levels of time, depth and distance for different levels of wickedness in the problems we solve:
We need little time for solving simple problems. Small, tiny features, can be invented in no time. They are obvious. The problems with obvious are: a) Although we need to build many obvious features, they are not attractive to work on. Standard work. Still they might be required.
The harder the problem gets, the more time we need. coming up with a new business model or strategy, simply takes more time.
But time is not enough. Time is required, but not sufficient. I can spend all the time in the world on a hard problem, but it does not help when an environment does not support depth.
Some signs of depth: A calm environment, long time periods of uninterrupted work, long time periods without being asked if there is already a solution.
Time alone does not help. We need uninterrupted time to save harder problems.
But there is another dimension: Time and depth alone are not enough for the hardest problems: For these we need distance as well.
Distance is needed, when we need to be able to see what we are doing from a different angle. Most innovation on the market happens because teams can look at the market from outside of the company, with great distance to the companies’ everyday life.
One of the biggest risks is not to be able to step away from everyday work and not being able to get an outside, distant view on what we do.
If we look at how work is organised in companies, let’s look how these ways of organising work serve for different levels of time, depth and distance.
Sitting at our desk, doing pre-defined work
Most of the time, when we do this, the work is already broken down, the task is )or should be) clear. Most of the time there is little depth available, distance can’t happen. This is an ideal setting for simply cutting through simple tasks.
Regular or ad hoc meetings provide for a little more time and depth, but still no distance. Meeting every Wednesday at 11am is a good way to stay synchronized and it serves a little depth, as it gives us the chance to repeatedly think about the same things. But the small amount of time (mostly one hour) does not cater for enough depth and time to do groundbreaking things. This is why meetings are a bad way to plan great news things.
Workshops (even better series of workshops) help much better in understanding, dissecting and solving more complicated problems. We have much more undisturbed time, which allows for more friction, diversity of views and a more exploratory character of our work.
Offsites enter the element of distance to workshops. The added spacial distance really helps getting away from everyday issues. That can be amplified by not looking into emails, leaving the smartphones switched off and so on. If you really organise your workshops this way and understand that the added value of distance only plays out when the „no everyday work“ rules are applied, you can pull off amazing things at offsites. Take care that no one feels important by being needed for calls or email.
If the problem you want to find or address is really deep or something really new (as in: a new business model, strategy, product etc.) you should really think of sending people outside of your company. Physically. Just the small talk at lunch with the colleges can be quite discouraging (for both parties: „the lunatics“, „the holiday project“ vs. „IT is the place wehere good things go to die“).
Give those people, dealing with hard, deep, complex problems the time, depth AND distance to deal with it.
Send them to a remote location, live together for a couple of days, be a team committed to a deep understanding of the problem and destined to come up with a solution, based on your trust in them.
I am convinced that the time, depth and distance provided by The Retreat will be the next competitive advantage for businesses. We know how to be faster, but now we also need to how to go deep again.
And that does not only count for companies, it is also true for individuals.