The beauty of white space

“Just be still!” An investor said this to me years ago when we were awaiting news about our company that would dictate our future.  It was good advice.

I’m writing this as I wait for 20 executives to arrive for a senior management meeting that I’m facilitating. Although we have three clear objectives for the conference, there’s a strong feeling at this company that any time the group spends together is good time. Conversations are valued more then detailed agendas. Oh, they eventually get around to executing; in fact, planning is one key skill of this leadership team. They are smart enough, however, to understand that more great ideas germinate during the cocktail hour than in tightly structured meetings. By the way, this company produces significant financial results.

When I was an executive at Kinko’s, we had an annual meeting called “The Picnic.” We flew thousands of people to a beach location such as San Diego or Hawaii to spend a week together. We had a company meeting, some seminars and a vendors’ show, but we did the real work on the beach, at the pool or throughout the cocktail hour … never really relegated to an hour. During those times, real conversations and debates took place about how to grow our business and improve our profitability. Our founder was a genius at understanding that cramming the week full of meetings wasn’t a great way to share and learn. He knew that “white space” was the best learning opportunity.

I see far too many executives try to cram 10 pounds of stuff into a 5-pound bag. Eight-hour days become 15-hour days. Agendas are overloaded and rarely finished. Strategic objectives are assembled by the bushel and then reassembled next year because most weren’t completed. Meetings are scheduled so tightly you’d think you were in your doctor’s office. No time to reflect, think and craft great questions — just a hell-bent-for-leather quest to work more.

As leaders and managers, we don’t get paid for activity; we get paid for producing results. More activities don’t necessarily produce more results. Have you heard the phrase, “Slow the game down”? It applies to basketball, but it also relates to business. Working quickly is good, but having white space on your calendar, your agenda and your list of strategic objectives is imperative.

Categories: Management & Leadership