The story is told of a man many years ago who had built up a resume of work indicating he was talented, if a bit eccentric. At one point in his career, he was hired for a job that was started by someone else but left unfinished.
Instead of getting right to work to complete his new job, however, the man had a rather unorthodox habit: He did nothing. For the longest time he simply sat and stared at the work that had been begun by someone else and left unfinished, lifting nary a finger to the task at hand.
Should he have been fired as he stared for hours while on the clock? It became so disconcerting that a friend asked him what he was doing just sitting there staring. The “worker’s” curt reply? “I’m working.”
Years later, when the work was finally completed, someone asked Michelangelo what he was thinking of when he sat there staring at the block of Tuscan Carrara marble that would become the statue David. He replied, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
The story of Michelangelo and his unorthodox work habits is told in a paper authored by Dutch professor Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries titled, “Doing Nothing and Nothing to Do: The Hidden Value of Empty Time and Boredom.”
In it, Kets de Vries writes that doing nothing and being bored can be invaluable to the creative process. “In our present networked society, introspection and reflection have become lost arts,” he writes. “Instead, we are at risk of becoming victims of informational overload. The balance between activity and inactivity has become seriously out of sync. However, doing nothing is a great way to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination. Slacking off may be the best thing we can do for our mental health. Seemingly inactive states of mind can be an incubation period for future bursts of creativity.”
In other words, do nothing. It makes all the difference.
Do nothing? Really?
Perhaps by now you are wondering what kind of CEO would be espousing the benefits of doing nothing. You would be correct to be puzzled, but there is purpose in the approach.
That’s because what I’m advocating isn’t to have workers, or even CEOs, engaged in a work culture of doing nothing. Au contraire, I’m proposing a twist on Kets de Vries’ research.
To me, the idea of “doing nothing” is all about making time to think – so we can come up with insights and innovations that will create real value. To get there, we focus on automating the routine and menial tasks at work to concentrate on what really matters. It’s the concept of not wasting energy on the routine stuff — which is essentially doing nothing and the height of inefficiency — by systematizing and automating it.
Automation is everywhere and the best automation goes nearly unnoticed.
Nearly every car today comes equipped with an anti-lock braking system (ABS) that pulses your braking under the control of an on-board computer to assure your tires maintain traction and your stopping distance is minimized. In the old days when I learned to drive, we did that (with varying degrees of success) with our foot by pumping the pedal.
The automation of the routine is happening in everything from applying the brakes in your car to big business to crime fighting. Yes, crime fighting.
In 2010, the Chicago Police Department implemented what would come to be known as a “heat map” of the city based on a novel new algorithm. Developed by Brett Goldstein, the predictive policing algorithm effectively reveals to police officers hot spots for potential criminals based on where people have previously been arrested.
In one instance, the department algorithm identified 400 individuals it predicted would have the highest chance of committing a crime. While the Chicago Police Department’s analytics program has drawn criticism from the ACLU and others, police officers say it helps them allocate resources more effectively.
Other departments are also engaged in predictive policing. In Santa Cruz, Calif., as noted by theNew York Times, two women were arrested in a parking garage while peering into cars — one had outstanding warrants and the other was carrying illegal drugs — based on a computer program that predicted the likelihood of car burglaries there on that day.
It’s a novel innovation that combines harnessing the power of computers and algorithms, calibrated daily by combining historical and fresh crime data, and effectively automating the menial and routine — think of police officers “walking the beat.” Allegiancy uses technology and data to create similar algorithms to drive predictive analytics for each of our properties. We are leveraging the decades of experience our senior people have to predict various significant risks, events, expenses and opportunities before they happen. It’s as your grandmother used to say: “A stitch in time saves nine.”
So how does my concept of “doing nothing” play out in our company, Allegiancy? I think there’s a common assumption that a company’s strategic planning is done solely by senior management. Not so at Allegiancy.
I want our employees thinking strategically, whether it’s management, analysts, accountants or administrative assistants. By thinking strategically at the bookkeeping level, the accounting department becomes a profit center instead of a cost. It’s essentially taking innovation to the ground level.
The goal is to create a culture where people feel empowered to not always have to look busy. This plays out at Allegiancy in myriad ways. Our workers have laptops instead of desktops. We have break rooms with comfortable chairs and couches We also have a game room with a foosball table and video games, not to mention a kitchen with lots of free snacks and sodas. It’s not about being perpetually immersed in administrivia, but freeing employees to think about and do what’s important. And maybe, just maybe, come up with a new way to do it.
At the bookkeeping level, my idea of `doing nothing’ is the accountant considering what they are doing, why it’s being done, who uses the work product, who does it impact and is there a better way to do it? Can some of the tasks be automated? Where am I most valuable to the company?
In our push to automate the routine — the relentless drive for efficiency —the idea of doing nothing is more about being thoughtful and prioritizing. Well over half of our innovations have come from clients. That wouldn’t happen if we were too busy doing things that could be automated, like bill paying or task management, and didn’t have the time to actually spend with them, listening to them and thinking about and acting on their needs, recommendations, or concerns.
Maybe we’re not actually taking a page out of Michelangelo’s book and sitting around staring for hours and days and weeks and years on end at the office buildings we are managing for clients around the country. But be sure that we are focused on automating the routine to ensure those buildings are peak profit centers.