Do procrastinators make good innovators? At first glance, the procrastinator may not be well-suited to a structured innovation effort which requires consistent, dedicated efforts to develop a new process or technology to meet a market need. The procrastinator may engage in bursts of activity from time to time but then may also disengage to focus on other endeavors, while a competitor with a more structured approach to work would continue to follow a repeatable process, working through each failure to refine his or her innovation.
Conversely, the procrastinator may, in the course or delaying work to concentrate on another topic of interest, stumble across an insight that propels the innovation forward, leapfrogging ahead of the more step-by-step approach of another practitioner. In the article “How to Be a Better Procrastinator,” Stanford Professor John Perry offers support for the latter scenario, noting that procrastinators “are people who not only get a lot done but have a reputation for getting a lot done.” Perry presents several observations about procrastinators that resonate with those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about different approaches to innovation.
Perry’s first piece of advice to the procrastinator is to ignore the typical mantra of keeping one’s commitments to a minimum. The non-procrastinator sees the procrastinator as someone who has trouble saying no to a new commitment and, as a result, ends up overwhelmed with assignments and responsibilities. Perry notes that the procrastinator is better off having a large set of things to work on so that when the inevitable urge to procrastinate strikes, he or she can quickly jump into another area of interest. Otherwise, a procrastinator with only a few commitments would end up doing nothing, which is even less productive. For the innovator, this advice resonates to the extent that one should always be open to considering new innovation themes or ideas to explore, even if one is fully occupied with an existing set of initiatives. This openness to new ideas can serve two purposes. First, it ensures that the innovator always has a full pipeline of areas to investigate for future innovation in the event that he or she encounters obstacles in working on an existing project. Second, the introduction of new ideas could inspire the innovator to look at an existing challenge in a new way, resulting in the improvement of both the old and new ideas.
Perry’s next recommendation is for the procrastinator to stay away from the scenario where he or she laments an inability to avoid diving into a particular work area. Focusing energy on one’s lack of willpower, Perry writes, “will make you a depressed procrastinator but won’t help you get anything done.” Perry sees procrastination as a tool possessed by some individuals that enables them to “manipulate [themselves] to achieve results [they] can’t get with willpower alone.” In this example, Perry counsels the innovator to focus on the output of the process more so than the flaws of the mechanism that he or she uses to achieve that output. An innovator who procrastinates should not lament the procrastination itself. Rather, he or she should leverage the procrastination process to explore new ideas or think about a current problem in a new way. A long walk in a park can lead to breakthrough thinking in solving a problem, such as James Watt’s famous lunchtime stroll across Glasgow Green. Jason Fried, CEO of the software company 37signals, has taken this concept to the extreme and devoted a month of company time each June to allow employees to investigate new ideas or processes. According to Fried, the “June-on-your-own experiment led to the greatest burst of creativity [he had] ever seen from [his] 34-member staff.” He even characterized the output as “ultra-productive.”
Another admonition from Perry concerns the need for the procrastinator to “avoid perfectionism.” Specifically, Perry highlights the downside of “fantasizing about doing things perfectly,” because procrastination can sometimes be a method in which the procrastinator delays working on a task so that he or she can do a less than optimal job on work that does not require perfection in the first place. Voltaire perhaps best expressed this in his poem La Begueule, writing “the best is the enemy of the good.” For the innovator, this aphorism holds equally true. Paul Hobcraft’s recent article in these pages, “Jumping Hurdles and Closing Gates on Innovation,” provides an excellent assessment of the disconnect that can occur between innovation and typical corporate strictures, such as an integrated product development process, particularly in the area of disruptive innovation. A stage-gate process inevitably forces rigor on an innovation effort but can also impede the open-thinking that successful innovation requires. Just as some work efforts do not require perfection and thus are susceptible to procrastination, so, too, some innovation projects can benefit from a lack of rigor and more free-thinking.
Finally, Perry recommends that procrastinators freely admit to their colleagues that they are afflicted with this mindset to reduce the level of annoyance that this attribute often inflicts on the non-procrastinators. For the innovation practitioner, this is not quite as challenging, as we are often seen by our colleagues as more prone to free thinking (or even daydreaming) than our more structured colleagues. Acknowledging this attribute to colleagues is easy, but as Perry points out throughout his article, leveraging this attribute to improve performance is the real challenge.
Perhaps the best way for the procrastinators and innovators to signal to colleagues that they are engaged in another stream of thought is through the use of headphones. Writing in the New York Times “Workstation” feature, Amisha Padnani cites research from the Mayo Clinic and the University of Miami that highlights how listening to music can improve workplace performance. One study of information technology specialists, authored by Dr. Teresa Lesiuk, suggests that “those who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn’t, because the music improved their mood.” Decisions made under stress, Dr. Lesiuk notes, tend to be made among a more narrow set of options whereas a positive mood allows an individual to take into consideration a greater range of options. For the procrastinator, the recognition that procrastination is an integral and productivity-enhancing part of the work process could serve the same function that music does for a cubicle dweller sporting headphones. Likewise, the innovator should accept this realization and use open-thinking to drive innovation.
John Perry, “How to Be a Better Procrastinator,” Wall Street Journal (August 11, 2012).
Jason Fried, “Be More Productive. Take Time Off,” New York Times (August 19, 2012).
Amidha Padnani, “The Power of Music, Tapped in a Cubicle,” New York Times (August 12, 2012).
Scott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.