When turnaround legend Lou Gerstner took the helm at IBM in 1993, one of his boldest early actions was startlingly simple. As the projector bulb warmed up for the ritualized theater of yet another senior management meeting, Gerstner walked to the front of the room, turned off the machine and said, as politely as he could: “Let’s just talk about your business.”
Two decades later — despite that breath of fresh air and even as the overhead has given way to the touchscreen — senior executives’ best thinking is still being suffocated by gadgets: IT, once an acronym full of the promise of “information technology,” has shifted executive teams’ focus too much onto the “T” and not nearly enough onto the “I.”
A growing body of neuroscience research has begun to reveal the exact ways in which information age technologies cut against the natural grain of the human
. Our understanding of all kinds of information is shaped by our physical interaction with that information. Move from paper to screen, and your brain loses valuable “topographical” markers for memory and insight.
Although screens have their strengths in presenting information — they are, for example, good at encouraging browsing — they are lousy at helping us absorb, process, and retain information from a focused source. And good old handwriting, though far slower for most of us than typing, better deepens conceptual understanding versus taking notes on a computer — even when the computer user works without any internet or social media distractions.
In short, when you want to improve how well you remember, understand, and make sense of crucial information about your organization, sometimes it’s best to put down the tablet and pick up a pencil.
I have seen this truth revealed again and again in my five years as senior managing director at the Drucker Institute, where I lead the Un/Workshops consulting practice. In one to two days, we take executive teams through a fast-paced, transformational experience that requires them to power down their devices and power up their brains.
We recently worked with apparel industry leaders from design, sourcing, manufacturing, and brand management to prototype a more innovative, responsive, and responsible supply chain. The workshop did not include a single PowerPoint slide or digital simulation.
Instead, we put participants in small groups and equipped them with just some Drucker-based prompts, a box of pens, and a few sheets of paper. People like to say that they “connect” with digital technology but there is no match for the physicality of really energized collaboration — people huddling side-by-side, everyone scribbling notes, all watching their work take shape in real time, without jumping prematurely to the air of finality that comes from a slick digital template.
They accomplished a tremendous amount of design and decision-making in a very short amount of time. Instead of pushing pixels around to make the best show of half-baked ideas, they pushed ideas around to arrive at plans with real promise.
My experience is that, when an executive team works “unplugged” for the first time, there is often a moment when the power of briefly setting aside technology shines through. We once asked a global technology firm’s leadership to try a “stone age” solution as they conferred on how to implement a newly hatched strategy. Heretical as it seemed, the meeting did not begin with a full rehash of their 80-slide strategy deck. Instead, we went straight to small groups and a 20-minute assignment: Working on one piece of paper per group, write down the answers to a few basic questions about the heart of the new strategy (on which they had already been briefed many times).
I watched as one top executive pontificated about the strategy to his tablemates … and then drew a total blank when handed the pen. Due to his seniority, I suspect, his colleagues didn’t call him on the failure. But the nearly blank page didn’t lie to anyone in the room, including him. The discussion that followed — Why are we having so much trouble answering some of these basic questions? — uncovered the essential disconnect between the strategy and the team’s understanding of the customer it was supposed to serve. I’m convinced the usual PowerPoint parade would not have paused to expose that gap.
The great news if you want to try unplugging is that the basic techniques are simple and free. Here’s an Un/Workshop-style exercise you can try on your own time, with your own team, in just a half-hour: Including yourself, get six or more of your colleagues together. Divide yourselves into two or more small groups. Give each group one piece of paper with a single question printed on it: Who is our customer?
Have each group spend 10 minutes writing down its answer. Then spend 15 minutes discussing how the groups’ answers are similar — and different.
There’ll be no need to collect phones at the door; from the very start, people will be too busy debating, iterating, and achieving better understanding to even bother reaching for their devices.