Innovation Around the Clock

Innovation Around the ClockIn a recent posting I wrote about the merits of manipulating sleep cycles as a means of improving the creative powers of innovation team members. As it turns out, there are scientific theories concerning human productivity that cover the waking hours as well.

In “The Peak Time for Everything” in the Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger presents the results of a variety of research studies focusing on the linkages between the internal body clock (circadian rhythms) and varying performance levels that can be expected from humans at those times of the day. The innovation practitioner can leverage these concepts to improve his or her ability to deliver better results from innovation sessions. The sections below present Shellenbarger’s findings and the implications for students of innovation.

8:00 a.m.  “Write Upbeat Tweets”

According to a Cornell University study of Twitter data, users tend to be in more energetic and upbeat moods soon after waking in the morning. Innovators could use this time to craft upbeat messaging to use in innovation workshops later in the day, taking advantage of the extra morning energy that may not be present later on.

9:00 a.m. “Have a Tough Talk”
Steve Kay, a professor of molecular and computational biology at the University of Southern California, observes that “working memory, alertness and concentration gradually improve” from the time of waking up throughout the morning. Shellenbarger interprets this to be a good time to have a difficult conversation with a colleague, as those types of conversations are “best undertaken at time of high energy and clarity.” For the innovator, this could be an ideal time for talking to a colleague about an idea that the innovation team will no longer pursue (due to a lack of Return on Investment [ROI] or other shortcoming). The innovator may also want to take advantage of this time to have a frank discussion with a manager about the viability of one’s own idea, knowing that having both parties at high levels of energy and clarity in a hard conversation could let to a more optimal outcome than a situation of different energy levels.

10:00 a.m. “Do Cognitive Work”

According to Kay’s research, along with a gradual rise in body temperature throughout the morning, so, too, do a human’s cognitive skills improve hour by hour. As a result, Shellenbarger notes, “[w]orking memory and concentration tend to peak in mid- to late-morning.” This is a great time for the innovator to work on solving a particularly vexing problem, such as refining the ROI model for a project or examining alternative approaches to solving a problem to identify the one that fits best and is worth pursuing. This would also be a good time for a workshop session with participants operating at their peak cognitive abilities. Although the impending intrusion of lunch can sometimes disrupt a late morning workshop, biologically this seems like a good time to obtain strong performances from workshop participants.

2:00 p.m. “Take a Short Nap”
Additional insight is provided by Associate Professor of Psychology Robert Matchock from Pennsylvania State University. Matchock has observed a slump in alertness after noon and particularly after eating a meal, with a peak of sleepiness occurring around 2:00PM. Martin Moore-Ede of the Massachusetts-based training and consulting firm Circadian, recommends that people take a nap at this point to restore their energy. This is something that I have never even tried to implement as an innovation practitioner, as napping at a workplace continues to be viewed as culturally unacceptable, no matter how potentially valuable and restorative that short nap could be for the employee. For an innovation workshop leader, an alternative could be to recognize the dangers of the 2:00PM sleepiness peak and take the team outside for fresh air and sunlight to counteract the post-lunch food coma. It was difficult enough for me to institutionalize my 90 minute maximum working session model with mandatory 15 minute breaks. Trying to add a napping period to a traditional innovation workshop schedule would be quite challenging.

4:00 p.m. “Do Physical Work”

Although innovation workshops are typically theaters of the mind, there may be some innovation work that requires physical dexterity, such as working on a prototype of a new product. Michael Smolensky from the University of Texas, Austin, writes that physical performance reaches its peak between 3:00PM and 6:00PM, with the least likelihood of injury during that timeframe. An innovator who needs to move a large prototype from one room to another could choose this time for that endeavor. A workshop facilitator may also want to have participants engage in some sort of physical activity, such as re-arranging the room furniture. This not only lets the participants engage in physical work at their peak, thus engendering good feelings, but also forces a new perspective on the meeting attendees. Sometimes looking at the same problem from a different perspective can open the mind to new possibilities.

5:00 p.m. “Work Out”

Just as physical performance is peaking in the late afternoon, so, too, do muscle strength and hand-eye coordination reach optimum levels in this key period before the end of the typical workday. Boris Medarov from the Albany Medical College in New York, notes that muscle strength from 2:00PM to 6:00PM is as much as 7% higher than the lows for the day, and lung capacity is 17.6% more efficient at 5:00PM than at noon. This is a good time to remember that great ideas can often come for an innovator when that individual is doing something other than staring at a whiteboard in a conference room. Some of my best insights come while on evening walks with my dogs, and sports such as tennis and racquetball that require intense focus on fast-moving objects and contemplation of angles can sometimes open one’s mind to thinking about challenges in a new way. The old saw of “clearing one’s head” by engaging in a new activity could apply here, and leveraging the knowledge of the daily peak athletic performance timeframe certainly can’t hurt in this endeavor.

9:00 p.m. “Think Creatively”
Perhaps the most interesting finding from Shellenbarger’s meta-analysis of studies of circadian rhythms is the notion that the evening is a great time to drive creative thinking. As innovators we sometimes find ourselves trying to force-fit creative thinking into a tradition workday, but according to Mareike Wieth from the Albion College in Michigan, individuals seeking to come up with creative solutions to challenges may be most successful if they attack these problems in the evening when they are somewhat fatigued. Wieth posits that fatigue may permit the mind to stray from its normal pathways which could result in identifying new approaches to problem-solving. This theory lends credence to the notion of the flip day, as discussed in my previous article, in which an innovator brings in his or her term to work the opposite hours of a tradition work day to encourage new thinking.

As Shellenbarger cautions in her article, there are always exceptions to these concepts in terms of the traditional dichotomy of morning people and evening people, where the former are more productive early in the day while the latter then to start more slowly and peak later. Nonetheless, the innovator can certainly benefit from thinking about how circadian rhythms are impacting the participants in an innovation session and tailor his or her activities to maximize the performance of the individuals involved in the process.

Sue Shellenbarger, “The Peak Time for Everything,” Wall Street Journal (September 26, 2012).

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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