Incubation: The slow zone

Life cycles of organizations, people, businesses and products, have predictable stages. Each stage is in conflict with other stages.

Graphic of the slow zone

Let’s use a business as our example. Our founder gets a vague idea, a gut feeling or intuition. Once the half-baked idea surfaces, she mulls it over. This stage is necessarily purposeless. It’s more about discovery than goal orientation. The idea may even be forgotten, but there are underlying processes going on all the time.

Guy Claxton, author of Hare Brain Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, coined the term Undermind for this intuitive way of slow knowing. He contrasts this with what he calls D-mode: deliberate-mode. Remember that sort of thinking you were praised for in school? Of course, D-mode is necessary, but not here, and not yet.

Incubating ideas is similar to how a writer might go through several drafts before really knowing what he wants to write about. An artist may make multiple sketches before deciding on which direction to take a painting. It’s the process that gives birth to the new.

Once the business is born, then management by the seat of the pants is the name of the game. Everything is in flux. Our founder may hire people who thrive in a chaotic environment. Roles have not yet been defined. Everything speeds up. New ideas are welcome. The business is still malleable.

Taking shape

As the business succeeds, professional managers get hired and systems are put in place. Now the focus is on speed, efficiency and productivity. There is little tolerance for anything that can’t be measured. Everything is results-driven. If time is not allotted to the “slow zone” then the company starts to look inward and becomes a rigid, rule-based organization detached from a dynamic marketplace. By now the creative talent needing a flexible environment has left. The company goes into decline and eventually dies.

Sir Ken Robinson, author, creativity expert, and educational guru, says that our education system is still a nineteenth-century model. Back then, the workforce wasn’t expected to be smart. It was expected to be efficient and obey. And the only options were to “do more, faster.” In the early twentieth century, workers were subjected to time and motion studies. Every movement was timed. Soon this sort of dehumanizing work was taken over by technology. But our education system is still playing catch up.

Slow creativity

Creativity, innovation and adaptation drive our economy. Robinson says that creativity will become as essential to our future as literacy is today, and he is pushing for creativity to be taken seriously in education.

Innovation and creativity are not the same things. My definition of innovation is an improvement (or an alternative to) something in existence. Robinson’s definition of creativity is simply those ideas that have value.

There is a lot of talk in business about creativity. Sadly, most of it is just talk. Creativity is a process that takes time. New ideas, new ventures, new ways of thinking don’t happen in a flash of inspiration, but they more readily surface after a period of incubation.

Slow seeing

Yogi Berra once opined that you can observe a lot by just watching. Nobel laureate, Szent-Gyorgyi said that discovery consists of seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one has thought.

Slowing down gives us the opportunity to see more clearly what we otherwise miss. But in business, slow is not for sissies. Slow is counter-intuitive. And where speed and efficiency are articles of faith, slow is heretical. Einstein spent a lot of time staring out of the window from his Princeton office. He dreamed of riding on a moonbeam.

The future is uncertain. Our world is dynamic, and it is our thinking that will make or break us. Taking the time to slow down can help us be more creative, see opportunities, avoid mistakes and be more productive. Slow is not lazy, although it might look like it. Ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan wrote most of his latest book while soaking in the bathtub. By the way, I have tested this slow and productive method and I recommend it.

Related post: Four stages of just about anything