Just Thinking

There is little point in saying something for the sake of it. A journo, a politician, a blogger, is often faced with the problem because they’ve got to come up with something. Is it therefore an exercise in hubris when a quiet tongue or an inert typing finger would be more appropriate? Often, yes it is, but there is another aspect to it. Like intelligent word games, coming up with something new, something fresh is good for the brain. It could even be claimed as good for humanity to have a more thinking and introspective mind-set. And therein lies an interesting issue: how do we train ourselves to think? Especially to think out of the box?

The answer may be remarkably simple: just sit back, relax (a glass of Guinness often comes in handy at this point) and think about it. The stepping back part of this process is what is important. We are usually too engaged, too urgent in business or organizational issues, to take time out. Not to rest, but simply to think. This is easy to say in a casual way, but back in 1966 a Hungarian-born American economist Harry Leibenstein published a paper titled Allocative efficiency v. “x-efficiency” in the American Economic Review. He later turned it into a book. In it he argued that the neo-classical (that is, the mainstream traditional) view that efficiency arose from deploying resources, especially managerial resources, in directly productive ways, just missed the point. Basically he suggested that some wiggle-room time at all levels increased the overall productivity by allowing for some thinking to take place.  In a sense it was an extension of the idea that as people work fewer hours they can also work more intelligently. (Historically, for manual workers it also meant they worked with less stress and therefore with better health, more physical energy and alertness). Actually, thinking people don’t work fewer hours, they work longer hours but outside of the employment contract.

Silicon Valley has often used this idea to give their software people time to contemplate their navels in colourful cubicles where they can engage their fantasies and think about how they might make them real. And in that respect the world has changed beyond recognition. In today’s world everything (almost) is an algorithm. A decade ago Virtual Reality tried to mimic reality, but today much of reality (in the richer nations) is virtual. It is conceived and delivered virtually. In the manufacturing age conception engaged with the material world, but the material world in a digital age is only the means of access. Taking “time out” to think has become part of the digital economy process, and as such it has come to be rewarded in new ways. Instead of X-efficiency, “thinking time” is becoming a job in itself. At one end of the value chain are the “evangelists” who popularize the ideas of the backroom geeks. They are the equivalent of the marketing guys of the manufacturing age. Their job is to translate original thinking into high-speed marketing speak.  And for that reason they are too often paid for the speed of their speech rather than the speed of their thought. At the materially creative end are the geeks, full of ideas, most of which will never fly. It’s who thinks in between these two ends that count commercially. Bright MBAs are employed by VCs and recruited into management teams to think how their market metrics will turn the idea into something that sells. And often they get it right. They know from experience (and from the data) what works in the market and what doesn’t. They know, for example, that in a world of virtual goods and services, intangibles such as “lifestyle” and “personal values” become the mantra for marketers, that form-factors replace functionalities as the selling point. And while they may sometimes get confused between the relative importance of market intelligence and intelligent marketing, they rest assured knowing that time series data drives the investment decisions. But it didn’t produce the iPhone or the iPad. Someone needs to think about that. That was another job.

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