Innovation, Technology, and Life in the Cloud

George Watt

Innovation and the Art of Inefficiency

“Walk more often; take more showers.”

This spring I joined some colleagues in the Global Corporate Challenge. Participants in this 16-week health improvement challenge accept a goal of taking 10,000 steps every day. Think you are about to read another article about the connection between being fit and innovation? Think again. While I have found that I tend to be more creative when I am more active, I learned something tremendously different during the first half of this challenge. I learned the value being inefficient can bring to innovation and creativity.

Finding the addition of one long walk to the end of each day (in order to achieve team and personal goals) inconvenient, I eventually realized that being inefficient was much more efficient. During the workday I started taking longer routes to office facilities and using resources that were a little further away than those closest to me. Being inefficient in this way delivered great results in the context of the challenge, though it also had a positive impact on my work. My alertness improved, and the routes often brought me to people or resources to which I would not otherwise have been exposed.

Being exposed to new people and environments can certainly improve creativity. Though it was actually the journey – not the destination – that was most beneficial.

Some believe that a great way to solve a problem that requires creativity or innovation is to eventually take some time to not think about it – at least consciously. They advocate things like cleaning your office, for example, letting your mind work on the challenge while you work through something relaxing or at least not intellectually challenging. This may explain the benefits of my minor moments of inefficiency. Sometimes even the extra minute or two it took to walk to “the other” restroom or office resource was enough for me to complete creating an approach to a new challenge or to solve a new problem.

Eventually I realized that longer walks I took each day were not having the same impact as the shorter breaks. That did not make sense to me. Until…

I recalled reading an article, I believe written by Charlotte Fritz, that suggested taking workday breaks that are not work-related are not as beneficial in terms of revitalizing people. As I considered that I realized during the longer walks I would listen to podcasts and audio books. Stay healthy and learn. Nice and efficient. Was that the difference? It inspired me to experiment.

What a difference! Within days of changing my routine I had worked through several things that I had been stuck on. When walking in the morning or at lunch, I played music instead of a podcast or book.  As I started some walks, I would think about something I had been working on – a challenge I had not solved or a creative task. I would start mentally working through the solution or how I might approach finding one. Sometimes I would fairly quickly come upon a solution or approach. Other times my mind would drift and I would get lost in the music or wildlife that crossed my path. Then, seemingly from nowhere, a stream of ideas would start to flow, so rapidly in many cases that I would have to stop and take notes. At other times I just cleared my mind and enjoyed the walk. Some of my best ideas came then.

Were my results an anomaly? Happenstance? My experience hardly qualifies as scientifically sound research. Though, without a doubt, being “inefficient” helped me to be more creative. Writing this, I was reminded of a time earlier in my career when I had presented several innovations and creative ideas to our co-founder over a short period. In several cases he had asked how I came up with the ideas and I had answered “I was in the shower and…”. I hadn’t noticed the pattern until one day he ended a meeting with “Great. And, George. You need to take more showers.” We had a good laugh at that at the expense of the highly confused people who had arrived for his next meeting.

So, during the first half of the Global Corporate Challenge I learned:

• “Inefficiency” can improve creativity and innovation;
• Distractions and task switching can counteract its benefits;
• Be prepared to take notes, the ideas may come faster than you can imagine;
• Sometimes a walk is just a walk – enjoy those; and
• Take more showers.

These are simple things that have helped me. Are there “simple things” you do to help with personal creativity and innovation? If so, please share them via the comments.

This blog is cross-posted at Innovation Central.


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This site contains articles regarding the practical aspects of deploying, providing, managing, and using cloud computing, and other technologies. I also share my thoughts and experiences related to innovation, consumer driven IT, social media, management issues, and about what some refer to as “soft skills”.

All works copyright (C) 2009 - 2015 George Watt - All rights reserved.

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