Sunday, October 29, 2006

Napping as a Competitive Advantage

As one who is often sleep-deprived, I am perpetually drawn to articles on the subject whenever they appear in the media. With daylight savings time upon us, the media provided its annual commentary on the subject. After reading that sleep-deprivation measurably reduces IQ, and that we are not acting fast enough to account for this in our places of work, I am convinced that institutionalizing napping needs to go down on each leader’s priority list.

Before the advent of the light bulb by Thomas Edison in 1910, our forebears slept routinely up to 10 hours a day. We’re down by 30 per cent on average now: between 6.9 and 7.5 hours a day. Sleep researchers generally agree that anything at or below 7.0 hours interferes with our ability to think.

According to Stanley Coren’s research at the Human Neuropsychology and Perception Laboratory, University of British Columbia, if we sleep only seven hours per day, we lose one IQ point each day and it’s cumulative. For each hour short of seven hours sleep, we lose two more points. Over a week, that adds up!

Aside from the health hazards of sleep deprivation, for example, weakening our immune systems, we can assume no organization escapes the consequences in the work place. Collective organizational IQ is compromised.

One antidote is to make napping an acceptable practice. Sleep researchers have long known that our natural circadian rhythms show dips in energy and alertness in the early afternoon and late evening. Yet, we seldom account for this from a policy perspective in our workplaces.

Back in ancient times, they speculate that humans did not necessarily sleep for long times, perhaps to accommodate to the dangerous and uncertain environments in which they lived. Instead, they engaged in polyphasic sleep: lots of short naps throughout the day.

In our modern, fast-paced and frequently tumultuous environments, calling on our ancient habits, may be timely to support not thwart our evolution. Powernaps do help us regain our energy, improve our moods and in the organizational sense, buoy our ability to think and decide. The researchers contend that as little as a daily 10 minute nap can turn our declined performance and attention around.

Some organizations have taken this to heart but the majority has not despite the strong business case presented by sleep researchers. Not surprisingly, the largest obstacle is social: misperceptions about the work ethics of nappers, fears that people will abuse the opportunity, and assumptions that there is no time in the work day to nap (our type “A” personalities). But, we do provide people with time for coffee-breaks and lunch. Thus, there is room already in the way our work days are structured to include a nap.

The researchers estimate that it will take about 20 years before napping becomes widely acceptable in the workplace. Enlightened leaders have an opportunity to seize the moment sooner. In the ever-tightening labour market, making napping an acceptable part of the culture, is a sound attraction and retention strategy. If budgets and space are tight, people will find ways to nap without an investment in sleep rooms or reclining chairs. A more welcoming environment for napping can be built over time, as budgets allow.

No matter the age or stage of life, such a policy has great appeal. At an individual level, personal health and happiness and a feeling that the organization cares will all be enhanced.

Like most innovations, especially at the novelty stage, not everyone will take advantage of permission to nap with no strings attached or career limiting consequences. Even if 10 per cent do, that will go a long way toward offsetting the extent of the weekly IQ deficit of the organization. By association, more nappers and fewer tired people means that the decision making quality may be less compromised and the workplace more fun. Now that’s real competitive advantage!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Cultivating the "Nobel" Leader

‘Tis the season for Nobel prize winners, that special class of thinkers who share important commonalities with great leaders: intellectual curiosity, independent thinking and a strong tendency to challenge conventional wisdom. Their collective virtue is a model for the world, including leading and managing any organization or nation. It is unfortunately in short supply, not because of genetic deficits. Blame the habits of the mind---a learning deficit.

The biggest barrier to the “Nobel” approach to leading and managing, by far, is the tendency to believe “facts” that conform to our views, even in the face of conflicting information or outright contradiction. We see this played out in the newspapers every day with many political leaders—at our peril. Insufficiently swift action or lack of attention to urgent issues such as global warming, infrastructure development and maintenance, poverty, the safety of our food supply and the sources of violence and terrorism dominate the airwaves today. Through neglect, squabbling and short term thinking they are becoming bigger not smaller problems. The issues would likely not have grown to their level of the magnitude and seriousness if the “Nobel mind” prevailed. As analytic rigor is a redeeming feature of those who win Nobels, how can we get more of it in the leadership domain for the good of all?

This year, when the Nobels were awarded, I noticed something I had not before. They run in families. From my undergraduate science days when I was fortunate to be taught by a number of outstanding professors, including Canada’s own Nobel winner in chemistry, John Polyani, I remember the Curies the most. Marie and her husband Pierre shared the physics prize in 1903. After Pierre’s untimely death, Marie went on to win again eight years later for chemistry. In 1935, the family garnered a third Nobel and a second in chemistry, by daughter Irene Joliet-Curie and her husband Frederick Joliet. All Nobels related to the study of the behaviour and synthesis of radioactive elements which are now the back bone of many medical procedures. This year, Roger Kornberg won the chemistry Nobel forty seven years after his still living Dad did in medicine. As with the Curies, their research fields overlap, this time in gene research. In the history of Nobels, there are six pairs of fathers and sons, four married couples and two brothers who have won Nobels since they started in 1901. If we add collaborative partnerships, the numbers greatly multiply.

The dynamics of the environment, therefore, have played a role in nurturing the habits of great thinking. Certainly, the American dominance for Nobel prizes this year suggests this too. To borrow from the language of software programmers, is this “scaleable” in organizations? Why not? The habits---questioning one’s own assumptions, testing pre-conceived notions in the field, replicating findings as well as generating novel ideas---are not difficult. Any leader-manager can become a more powerful “Nobel” thinker simply by deciding to be one. One role modeler leads to another. The culture shifts. The organization gets much smarter!