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Making Time to Think: Creativity Starts With Refusal

We’ve all been there. You complete a job and then look back at it thinking, “I could have done that so much better, if only I’d had more time.”

Or, you are well aware that something in your line of work, some process or system, is not as good as it could be. You know you could make it better, if only you had the time to think through the solution.

Innovation and continuous improvement have become mantras for success in business. But what not enough people are good at, especially in leadership positions, is making the time and space to allow the creativity to come up with better ways of doing things.

According to one survey highlighted in this Forbes article, more than four in five people believe lack of time is the biggest barrier to innovation in their workplace. Not only does that mean most businesses are missing out on opportunities to make improvements, just think how frustrating that is for all the workers who know they could make a positive difference, if only they were given the time.

If businesses are serious about fostering a culture of innovation, then management has an obligation to make time for staff members to pursue their creative ideas and problem solve effectively. And that means having the will to say no to other demands on your people’s time.

Time and workload management is a critical skill in effective leadership. You are not responsible for optimising how you spend your own time, you often have to do the same for the people working under you, especially if you are directly in charge of a team.

The Pareto Principle

There is all sorts of advice out there on time management and workload prioritisation. You often hear people talk about categorising to-do lists into work that is urgent or essential, work that is moderately pressing and work that is nice if you have the time to get round to it. The problem with this approach is that where you classify different tasks and why is completely open to interpretation. For many businesses, that time spent on creative thinking falls into the last category. If you want to take innovation seriously, managers have to make it a higher priority.

A handy thing to remember is the 80:20 principle, formulated by the Italian mathematician Vilfredo Pareto. His rule stated that 80% of outcomes occur from only 20% of the input. Applied to what we do at work, this mathematical model has considerable implications – if 20% of the work we do achieves most of the impact, the other 80% is not very efficient and has little value. In other words, we are doing a lot of stuff that is not a very good use of our time.

There are many reasons why we get stuck in patterns of prioritising low-impact work. It might be something a senior figure in the organisation has asked for or has a bee in their bonnet about. It might be a matter of habit, the way things have always been done. Very often, people prioritise low-value tasks because they are easy.

This is where an effective leader has to be able to step in, identify the low value tasks, and simply say no. Nevermind how habitual they are or who has asked for them to be done – if you are confident that staff’s time can be better spent in other ways, such as working out new solutions to increase productivity or cut waste, a good leader will be able to refuse. This is an essential step to escaping the trap of low-value tasks, and freeing up valuable time for innovation and creative thinking.