Space (to think and learn) – the final frontier

An excessive focus on productivity is actually having the opposite effect. By having an implicit or explicit goal of being productive in any particular endeavour, we limit the scope to think beyond the immediate task at hand. Through having the space to think and learn without the pressure to immediately assess the benefits, we can spark the new ideas and connections that lead to the innovations of tomorrow.

This has been brought home to me, having spent the weekend with 30 of the UK’s brightest and best young researchers as part of NESTA’s Crucible programme. The participants come from a wide range of different science and social science disciplines, and from both university and industrial environments. The aim of the programme is ultimately to support interdisciplinary research collaborations, through forging new connections, new ideas, or new opportunities. However, I believe that one of the real benefits of Crucible is the opportunity for the participants to network and to learn about a wide range of subjects from a series of interesting and sometimes provocative individuals.

This weekend we were fortunate to have Martin Kemp from the University of Oxford giving a fascinating presentation about the interaction between art and science which was for me the highlight of the weekend. A more detailed interview with Martin about interdisciplinary collaboration is available from here. He made a point that we simply don’t allow ourselves the luxury to tap into that childlike wonder about the world, by asking questions of people and learning how stuff happens in disciplines outside of our own. I recall going to additional lectures in philosophy as a student event through my main subject was physics. I wasn’t formally registered for the course but just had an interest in the subject so decided to sneak in on a regular basis. Not only was it enjoyable and thought provoking at the time, a longer term benefit has been to develop a different way of thinking which is frequently very useful. However, I now realise that we don’t have the opportunity to do that kind of thing nearly as often as we should, and I think it is actually detrimental to our innovation capabilities.

There is of course a balance to be stuck. I’m not suggesting for one moment that we shouldn’t have aims or objectives when starting out on a task. Nor do I wish to undermine the importance of planning carefully. I simply believe we should all engineer more opportunities in our work and personal lives that aren’t immediately orientated on being productive, rather that are about learning about a new subject, and expanding our experiences in some new direction. Google, for instance, allow their staff to spend 20% of their time on their own projects or interests without pressure to deliver on the business plan. This feels intuitively to be the right sort of ratio of structured verses unstructured time, but why don’t other organisations follow suit? The benefits may not be immediately realised, but over the long term, I strongly believe that this will be beneficial for our productivities as individuals and ultimately as a country.


  1. Many thanks for a really interesting post Roland. I agree wholeheartedly with the need for us to create the spaces for different ways of thinking – both through having unstructured time without targeted outputs (I relish train journeys for this – although find the rise of e-mail on the move can end up eating into that space…) and through running meetings / planning activities / explorations in more creative ways that borrow from other disciplines.
    Why don’t more organisations allow employees this space? Perhaps the fear that this space and time will be abused (but that’s just a challenge to an organisations leadership to make sure people are equipped and inspired to use the space) – or a concern about measuring the output (is there /proof/ that this leads to better problem solving?).
    I also think your post, in touching on philosophy – captures on of the big challenges for philosophy as a discipline. To rescue itself from musing on metaphysical trivia, or seeing itself as solely an under-labourer to the sciences – to understanding its key role as the site of interdisciplinary exploration and as both the original cradle of, and now the bridge between, the different branches of art and science and their distinct, functional or aesthetic, but sometimes too-constrained, ways of thinking.

  2. Many thanks Tim. Agree with all your points raised and glad to find a kindred spirit. I too particularly enjoy time on trains, which is sadly being erroded. I’ve recently stopped taking the tube in london and started taking the bus, which takes longer but gives more space to think. I guess that within organisations the issue is one of trust and inpiring people to use the space well. I am also equally fascinated and frustrated with Philosophy as a discipline, but when taught or discussed well, there is nothing better.

  3. For over 5 years I have been running corporate programs for senior managers designed to provide a space to think, learn and act outside of their daily operational responsibilities. Typically these are branded as “Thought Leadership Programs” and though the focus will vary the objective is always the same – to raise the level of thinking, connect the disconnected and focus on solving the major challenges and opportunities existing corporate thinking has created. For most attendees this freedom and scope is a unique and highly disorienting experience. Most initially display signs of what I call “corporate instituanlisation” – the inability to think and act big, with ambition, originality and confidence, and as an individual fully focused on solving the challenge before them, rather than producing something that is ‘acceptable’.
    This is a similar problem to aged prisoners who, having spent a lifetime in prison, are suddenly released into an uncaring and seemingly hostile world – no support network, no routine, no structure – they are on their own. Both prisoners and execs have quietly learned to “survive or thrive “ by adopting the culture and values of their ‘employer’ and this has largely served them well during long periods of stability. But when faced with a major challenge (or a more hostile landscape) they are left feeling adrift and unequipped to deal with something they never thought could happen (credible Chinese competition?) or assumed others would take responsibility for (headquarters, HR, R&D…).
    I am sure there are many reasons Google has the 20% policy it does (recruitment, retention, motivation, ideas, spin-off’s and even eventual profit) and as many as to why it is inappropriate or would not work so well elsewhere. But from my experience a major benefit has to be that these employees will have a personal opportunity to think about and stay connected to their changing industry, its technologies, customers and each other, regardless of their project goals. This must surely make coping with and benefiting from change a whole lot easier for Google and Google staffers than most others, for whom change is instinctively a threat and to be resisted.
    Finding some way to ensure the customer and the marketplace is always ‘inside’ the corporation and elevating the level of thinking focused on the BIG opportunities and challenges is now no longer an occasional luxury (as my programs are sometimes perceived) but increasingly essential to success; where Google has led, others will need to follow.

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.