Like many others I took my vacation at the year end to spend time with the family and to catch up with my reading list. My wife and I had warned our children that the hotel had told us that they did not have television. We were driving out very early to avoid getting caught in traffic snarls. Before we left home, the family spent thirty minutes on their respective devices bidding good bye to their Facebook friends and warning them that they would be incommunicado for the next week or so.
When we reached the hotel we discovered that not only was there no television, but there was no internet access and even the cell phone service was nonexistent. We were prepared for the no television bit, but being without the cell phone and internet was unexpected. Sometimes life offers us what we need and not what we want. The result was magical. We had conversations at the dining table and we read, went for walks and caught up with each other’s lives.
On the way back from our vacation, my kids screamed and pointed out to a sign on the highway against a tiny café that said, “Free Internet”. Yes, we stopped there and I am ashamed to say that for the next thirty minutes the family ate lunch in silence. Each one furiously pecked away at their mobile phones. It was almost as if we had held our breath under water and then emerged to fill up our lungs.
The office is no different. We exchange information, but there are fewer conversations. It is hard to have a meeting with anyone without the person’s phone ringing or vibrating urgently to frequently interrupt any conversation that is brewing. Text messages, status updates, bank transactions, travel deals, shopping suggestions all jostle each other to take place stealthily during meetings and presentations. We talk and text while driving. We would rather risk accidents than miss the tech-nudge.
Research tells us that it is not efficient to multi-task and that it takes substantially longer to learn anything or complete tasks without singular focus. Social psychologists tell us that having grit and sticking to a task to see it through is an important predictor of success. Innovations happen when people hold conversations, get bombarded by alternative perspectives and data points, occasionally go into unrelated paths and alleys before coming back to the original topic and perhaps ending off in a different space altogether.
Business challenges are far too complex to depend on a few bright individuals. Ideas need to be nurtured through conversations. Unlike transactions which are slickly efficient, these are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness, says media researcher Sherry Turkle. In her book Alone Together, she talked about the paradox of how technology has left us more connected and more alone.
We can run organizations in the Taylorian model to be progressively more efficient and judge them by their ability to process instructions. Maybe such workplaces should be measured the way we calibrate processor-speed, in million instructions per second. Alternatively we can clean up and create some space in our lives where we operate the way we would, in a café, with a group of really stimulating people for company – without their devices beeping. Innovations happen through conversations.