Is Procrastination Essential to Innovation?

In a very interesting and thought provoking piece, Whitney Johnson today is analyzing the potential benefits of procrastination for innovation.

I had always thought of procrastination as a bad actor, anxiety even worse. But in analyzing what I thought were merely stall tactics, I’ve come to realize that the anxiety caused by procrastination is actually a critical component to innovation. Research supports this. Anxiety, in the right quantities, can propel us forward. According to the Journal of Management, NASA scientists and engineers found that performance increases as deadlines shorten, but when the deadlines became too short, performance declined.

I agree that anxiety, shorter deadlines – and simply deadlines, and maybe simply constraints in general – helps foster innovation.

However I wonder if she’s not giving procrastination itself too much credit as a positive and natural generator of constraints. It may work for people who are capable of self introspection, have access to resources and are able to follow a certain discipline despite their procrastination. That immediately excludes a lot people.

Whitney, who wanted to write a book, also describes the innovations and new ideas she’s been able to pull from her anxiety.

1) View the book as a product. 

I realized my anxiety was caused, in part, by the unfamiliar experience of launching a book. By reframing it as being analogous to launching a business, I talked myself down. I’ve never published a book before, but I have incubated businesses. When you’re overwhelmed by a new project, look to your past for similar problems you’ve already solved. Just as a business model is required to maximize the reach of a simplifying technology, so too is a business model required to maximize the reach of a book. Looking at the book as a product has helped me lock into great ideas and energized my efforts.

2) Write my way through the launch. Just as scientists meticulously record daily findings to ensure that each experiment is replicable and accurate conclusions are drawn, I realized I could write about my experience of publishing a book. Dissecting the process and hoping that my experience may be helpful to others has turned out to be powerful motivator (and a source of content for my blog). When you can zoom out and view your experience in the abstract, you create the necessary distance to be objective about your own performance. In essence, you give yourself a general’s panorama of the battlefield rather than the limited view of a foot solider. Vision is essential for innovation.

3) Collaborate — and accept the help of others. Though I’ve written about the importance of collaboration, I struggle to do it well, and even more so to receive help. The anxiety factor has pushed me to reach out, something I might not have been willing to do previously. I’ve found fantastic partners who have enriched my efforts with their resources and granted me access to specialized knowledge that will strengthen my “product.” Sometimes anxiety can be the tool that forces us past imagined boundaries into a brave new world of possibility.

Of course I’m very sensitive to innovation #3 which is at the core of Symbyoz.

So let’s add another level of introspection to the mix: one of the reason we’re not collaborating well, while we know full well that it’s good for us, is again due to the procrastination of not keeping in touch more often with people.

It makes the conversation we want to have with them about our goals much more awkward and difficult because we feel guilty, because we don’t really know who to turn to, and because we’ll have to spend a lot more time trying to re-establish the proper, respectful communication channel to explain what we want, and why we need them.