Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Organizational Whitespace

The pastor at the church I am attending has been teaching about whitespace. While the actual concept of whitespace is a printing and graphic design term, it has application in life and for teams. He has been teaching that whitespace is necessary in everyone's lives and that Jesus, himself, saw the need for whitespace in order to stay in touch with God and what was important. There are many verses in the gospels which relate how Jesus withdrew to eat, or pray, or be alone with the disciples.

What is whitespace? It is the area of our lives we haven't filled up with meetings, or dinners, or some other preplanned activity (like driving the kids to and from practice).

Whitespace is the area where creativity and reflection can occur. It is the unplanned portion of our time and it is the time where people can reflect on their direction and their strategies. People, he maintains, need whitespace to decompress and to help order their lives. In terms of capacity and load whitespace is what is left over after the load of our lives is subtracted from our capacity. If the our load equals our capacity--then there are problems because there is no whitespace.

I have experienced this in my own life. I feel that lack of whitespace contributes to burnout. It may also contribute a sense of being out of control and a victim of what is occurring around rather than participating in life as the individual desires. When I run out of whitespace, I don't sleep well, I can't think well and my actual capacity for accomplishing things diminishes. The funny part of it all is that I don't believe I'm actually fully maxed out on my capacity when this happens. But over the course of a few weeks, it becomes apparent that there is not enough whitespace in my life. We, as people, can function at max capacity for a time--but not for an extended time.

As leaders, we must be aware that our teams and organizations can suffer from lack of whitespace, too. Organizations or teams where the pace is frenetic are prime candidates. Or where the team members are constantly moving from meeting to meeting and then dutifully creating meeting minutes or correspondence are another example of an organization in need of whitespace.

What are the symptoms of loss of whitespace for an organization or team? I think there are a few that can be listed as sort of a list of symptoms to look for:

1. Innovation decreases or stops all together

2. The organization or team becomes stagnant

3. Team member morale declines

4. Social networks begin to collapse

5. The team does less outside work together--parties, get togethers

6. Simple tasks become monumental endeavors

What can leaders do to create transforming whitespace for teams? Of course first, recognize that whitespace is valuable and (this sounds funny) plan for downtime to create the whitespace.

1. Create situations where the team is together just to talk and vent with no ulterior motive. This could be an extended lunch outside the office or it could be a morning coffee break.

2. Assist the team members in devoting part of their day, say 20-30 minutes (about 5 percent of an average work day) as unscheduled time. Let them surf the net if they want to.

3. Ramp up slowly in the morning as the day begins and encourage exchange of ideas and niceties.

4. Get the team away from their desks for meals--or at least ensure they are reading the paper or surfing the web if they remain at their desks.

5. As the team gathers for projects allow some time to get off task and digress--do not be quick to keep everyone focused. Great ideas are born out of free association.

Whitespace is a new concept for me--but as I learn more about it, I see how valuable it is. The applications to teams and organizations are just as valuable as to our personal lives. I used to think that unplanned time was wasted time--but now I am beginning to believe that unplanned time is the most valuable time. It is the time where I am most creative and it should be the time which is most productive for teams as well.

1 comment:

Bobdadmd said...

This sounds very plausible. I think you have a wonderful sense of motivation regarding this.


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