The power of hotel rooms…

An observation: most of my best ideas come to me during business trips. Ideas that then lead to major projects or products, ideas that are worth a lot – they tend to materialize in a plane, or behind the wheel of a rental car, or in a hotel room far from home. In fact, this is not just me – I hear similar stories from many other knowledge workers and managers.

Now, during these trips we are typically hurried, harassed, and often exhausted with jetlag. So what is it that makes us more creative? I can speculate that part of it may simply be that when away from the normal office routine, away from the day to day duties of work and life, we are jarred out of some mental auto pilot mode. And certainly meeting new people from different organizations can lead to cross-fertilization of ideas (after all, that’s why I started IORG – to get and give the opportunity to talk to diverse professionals). But part of it is the fact that these trips may be the only time we have away from interruptions!

With knowledge workers interrupted every 3 minutes on average (that amazing finding by Prof. Gloria Mark et al in UC Irvine), it is not surprising that the respite of even a few hours away from it all – away from telephones, colleagues, cellphones, SMS, and incoming mail – can make a huge difference. Ah, being alone in a quiet hotel room, with one’s brain and computer but no outside distractions…

In fact, there is a classic story from the history of technology that illustrates the power of such a room. William Shockley of Bell labs is credited as co-inventor of the transistor in 1947. The actual fact is that he wasn’t; he was the team leader, but his teammates – Bardeen and Brattain – invented the point contact transistor without him. When he realized he’d missed out on one of the most important inventions of the century Shockley was so annoyed that he locked himself up in a hotel room for a number of days, only emerging when he had a better implementation – the superior Junction transistor. But it took the locked room…

The problem these days is that the isolation of these trips is showing cracks. All hotel rooms now have network access. Cheap telephony can bridge distance (luckily, in my case, most of my trips span half the globe, so many who might interrupt me are fast asleep when I’m awake). And even the airlines, whose planes were once immune to any incursion, are playing with network and cellular access. Bad idea…

Maybe all it takes is to do what Shockley did – intentionally book a room and disconnect. But this is not a done thing; no company would fund it for its employees (they do send teams to various retreats, which may be great for the team’s joint thinking – but not individuals). Oh well…

1 Comment

  1. This is so right. I think being a night owl is an analogy to hotel rooms. Although it is true that going to sleep past 11pm is not very great for our biological clock, the best ideas I seem to get is when everybody is asleep and I KNOW FOR A FACT that there is almost no chance someone is going to ring me, invite me out, ask me for a favor, share a trivial fun fact or whatnot. I had to visit some relatives and friends in Tashkent (Dec, 2010) and – I never thought I’d be saying this – Tashkent is not very technologically developed including networking and it was one of THE BEST THINGS that happened to me. I was living at my cousin’s place who has been out of town for a year now. So…. i had no internet, i mean i had it but it was like 18 kb per second, and i had no TV because she canceled her cable before leaving. For the first time literally FELT like im going through a PHYSICAL withdrawal. SOMETHING was missing but i could not put my finger on it (btw i had to be there for 3 weeks and even wireless was like 3 MB per second) SO i had nothing else to do other than read books and go out and actually do something a normal human would do (I mean i actually learned on my own how to do a handstand – something that ive been aspiring to do for a year now – but “could never find the right source that would explain to me HOW to do it”). in about 2 weeks, I felt CALMER and I realized one particular thing. Uzbek people, or at least people of Tashkent were MUCH calmer and happier as opposed to Russians and Turks – the two nations i grew up with. People are not snappy, angry, depressed or in a rush. (Yes Uzbekistan does not have the greatest economy, but that is due to resources not because people are beyond chilled there).

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