In a recent interview with Adam Bryant of the New York Times, Victor Allis, the CEO of Quintiq, a software maker, said, “ We tell people, ‘Don’t try to figure it out all by yourself.’ We have a five-minute rule. If you’re sitting at your desk for five minutes and you can’t figure out whatever you’re working on, go ask someone.” As Allis explained, another employee may be able to advise, or “may be able to point you to someone who says, ‘We already solved that, and you can find it here.’”
Allis is wise to encourage employees to seek help when faced with difficult problems. Why waste time fumbling and fretting when you could find the answer by simply opening your mouth? On the other hand, too much “help seeking” can erode the need for employees to think through problems on their own.
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If we ask individuals to ask for help whenever they encounter an obstacle, we do nothing to help foster their own creativity and indeed we may risk their own development. Consider it akin to helping a child with homework by doing it for him. I would guess this is not Allis’s intention; he is encouraging teamwork and collaboration. At the same time the “five minute rule” may work against individuals who enjoy the challenge of figuring things out on their own. And if this figuring out does not hinder teamwork it should be nurtured, not stifled.
Allis’s “five minute rule,” is symptomatic of the larger societal issue of lack of focus. The demand for urgency, either real or imagined, and stoked to a large degree by our tethering to e-technology, hurts our ability to concentrate. David Brooks of the New York Times opined, “Many of us lead lives of distraction, unable to focus on what we know we should focus on.”
Employees feel this frustration. In a survey of more than 12,000 workers conducted by The Energy Project in 2013, just 18% of the said they had “regular time for creative or strategic thinking,” and only 21% of employees said they have “the ability to focus on “one thing at a time.” Yes, our e-world distracts us but employers who encourage quick-fix thinking are not helping the situation. Employees need time to problem solve.
Problem solving is an application of creative thinking applied to a specific issue. Scientists, and engineers in particular, are taught to look beneath the surface to the root of what might be causing difficulties. Sometimes problem leap to the surface but very often they lie well beneath the surface and only careful investigation, coupled with pursuit of careful question and analysis, will yield the source of the problem. Even then solutions may be long and coming.
Managers to encourage employees to ask questions and seek help when faced with problems they cannot solve immediately are facilitating quick fixes through discussion with their peers. This is wise practice.
But managers also should find ways to allow their employees to think through problems not simply for their own individual development but for the long-term health of the organization. Organizations need men and women who have the patience and discipline to work through solutions that require more than 24/7 responses.