In Between TIme
I recently returned from a vacation with my family, one that involved a number of big, fun activities. Interestingly, when I look back at the trip it strikes me that the best part of it, especially in terms of the lasting benefits to our family, happened during the times "in-between" those activities.
For instance, we loved the evenings when we were just hanging out together in the condo where we stayed. And the simple, informal meals we made when we weren't going out for dinner were the best ones of all. Even the long car ride from the airport at the end of our trip prompted a great discussion that we won't forget anytime soon. It was during those "in-between" times when we had the best talks and grew as individuals and as a family.
I think the same idea applies to work; the time "in-between" meetings and major events is so often the most valuable. That's not to say that meetings aren't important — they're critical. I've written plenty — even a whole book — about the centrality of meetings and the need to make them great.
But I am amazed at how much happens at my company between meetings. So many of our new ideas and insights — even entire books — come to life while we're eating lunch or waiting in line at the airport or standing in the middle of the office chatting. It happens all the time.
Now, I can't deny that part of the reason this is so prevalent at our company is the physical configuration of our office. We work in a big, open room where conversations can be had at the drop of a hat. While that is sometimes a recipe for distraction (particularly when I'm in the office because I'm a raging extrovert), it also makes it easy to have spontaneous discussions.
For people who work in walled offices on different floors and in different buildings, reaping the benefits of "in-between" time is much more difficult. I can't help but wonder how much goodness is being missed because organic, spontaneous "meetings" aren't taking place. Maybe that's one of the reasons why so much innovation happens in tiny start-ups where employees are working shoulder-to-shoulder, literally, not only during meetings but in between them as well.
Larger organizations probably need to start thinking about how they can make it possible for key people to spend unstructured, "superfluous" time with others they need to be working with. I recently read that Steve Jobs had lunch most days with the head of design at Apple. That explains a lot and makes sense given that design is at the forefront of Apple's innovation and success. Jobs found a way to ensure that he was having regular, organic, "in-between" conversations with one of his key people.
An author and friend of mine, Matthew Kelly, writes that the only way for real friendship to blossom is for people to experience what he calls "carefree timelessness," chunks of time when there are no agendas or time pressure. I think that the best leadership teams, the healthiest companies, the best marriages and families understand the value of finding occasional carefree timelessness. But I know that it isn't easy. As much as anything, it requires us to let go of the guilt we feel when we can't calculate the return-on-investment for "in-between" time. It requires us to have the wisdom and courage to be intentionally inefficient and unproductive, knowing that the people and the organizations we lead will ultimately become more effective and successful as a result.