Could Procrastination Be Your Secret Innovation Weapon?

Featured Image for Could Procrastination Be Your Secret Innovation Weapon?

Many companies struggle with how to deal with procrastination. Yet in Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant's latest book, "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World," he makes the case that strategic procrastination can help increase creativity and innovation while increasing overall productivity. In the latest installment of a series on must-read books for HR leaders, we are exploring Grant's key insights into originality, creativity and innovation. As Grant points out, some of history's most prolific and famous individuals procrastinated. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. waited until 10 p.m. the night before his iconic speech to write it. Michelangelo procrastinated on the Sistine Chapel for years.

Fast Company notes that individuals from history to today, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mariah Carey to Bill Clinton, have procrastinated for better ideas. Strategic procrastination may actually allow the human brain to formulate out-of-the-box solutions to a range of different challenges. How can HR leaders harness this potential to get better results from their team and for their organization at large?

The Power of Strategic Procrastination

Perhaps the most radical insight from "Originals" is the power of strategic procrastination. Most discussions about procrastination in the workplace focus on how it impedes doing more and getting more done during the creation process. The focus is rarely on the possible positive results or output. As Grant notes, some of history's most important figures were inveterate procrastinators — and often procrastinated on some of their most significant contributions to art, civic discourse, science and more.

1. Understand How Procrastination Can Help Promote Creativity

The first step in promoting the use of strategic procrastination in a helpful way is to recognize how it can promote creativity. As Grant writes, when you allow yourself additional time to consider a problem, you create the time and space to engage in divergent thinking rather than committing to a single idea. As a result, you're more likely to consider a wide range of possibilities and stress test those ideas against a wider range of different factors. In one study the book cites, individuals were asked to propose business ideas for an abandoned building. The participants who procrastinated were 28 percent more creative than those who immediately got to work on a solution. Encourage your employees to take an adequate amount of time to think about different potential solutions to the problems they face. Instead of asking them to propose a single solution, ask them to bring three to five different ideas to the table and talk the team through the pros and cons of each approach.

2. Stop in the Middle of Your Process

When you have a project underway, you're often moving through the creative process as quickly as possible. If your team is writing a new policy manual, for example, how many words can they write per day to get to the proposed 10,000 word count for the document? Grant suggests that instead of plowing through, workers may get better results by actually stopping in the middle of their process and coming back to the task fresh on another day. Giving ideas time to bake can help them become more sophisticated. It also gives employees more time to add nuanced insights and fully flesh out their contributions.

3. Let Go of First Mover Advantage and Build on Lessons Learned

One of the core fallacies of the business world is the idea of first mover advantage. Being first to market isn't always best, says Grant, unless there's a degree of scale involved. Instead, by taking the time to fully flesh out your ideas and strategically procrastinate, you can look for both inspiration and lessons learned. Look at what others have done in your space to determine what you can do differently to be more successful. Not only can you build on what others have done to avoid recreating the same mistakes, but strategic procrastination leaves us more open to improvisation.

As HR leaders think about how to deal with procrastination, it's important to distinguish between putting off important tasks and taking the time to really think through a problem. Some of the best ideas can occur when individuals take the time to let their minds think through different solutions and learn what others have done. For tasks that require out-of-the-box thinking, allocate sufficient time and ensure your team has the support needed to create fully fleshed out ideas. Rethinking your relationship to strategic procrastination can take your organization's innovation to the next level.

Stay up-to-date on the latest workforce trends and insights for HR leaders: subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter.