Bill Gates is known for his twice yearly “Think Weeks,” when he ponders the future of technology, explores mega-trends or new ideas with implications for his business and philanthropic ventures. He has been investing his time and energy in Think Weeks for more than 25 years. Its benefits have been invaluable. We consultants would do well to adapt this approach to our own professional development.
A Weeklong Deep Dive
Twice a year for 7 days each, Bill Gates secludes himself in a small waterfront cottage and reads technical papers, thought-provoking articles or books, and other resources assembled by a trusted team. He sees no one except the caretaker who brings his meals.
For weeks ahead of time, Gates’ staff works to select the hundred or so documents most worthy of his deep-dive review during Think Week. For 15-18 hours each day, BillG will read, ponder and record his thoughts or responses to everything he chooses to read. Those reactions will be shared afterwards with trusted staff.
Following Think Week, his managers will invest time to read and reflect on BillG’s database of notes and reactions to what he read during that intensive week. Microsoft attributes many new initiatives and innovations to the outcomes triggered by BillG’s Think Weeks.
I’ve been thinking about how to adapt his Think Week approach to the cadence of a consulting practice.
Options for Consultants
For consultants, working at clients’ beck and call, it’s challenging to find time to dedicate to “brain candy,” in-depth reading or interactions with big thinkers, or other forms of professional development.
It’s even harder to find time and motivation to explore mega-trends, learn about technologies or opportunities well outside the day-to-day consulting rhythms. Because they require time set aside for reflection, learning or practice, they often compete with time available for vacation travel, leisure pursuits, or pure relaxation with family and friends.
Some learning styles are well suited to stimulating debates with challenging thinkers, or immersive interactions with people who push us out of our comfort zone. Others require a deep dive, rather than a pro forma scan, into intellectually demanding content that introduces technologies, potential scenarios, trends or opportunities we’ve never considered before.
Unlike BillG few of us have the luxury of teams who can curate and provide the manifestos or thought-provoking books and analyses that will challenge preconceived notions, or broaden our thinking about new possibilities.
So what are some alternatives for consultants? Let’s start with a winner:
Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are, listen attentively and stay open to what you can learn from them.
Take online classes or seek out other ways to feed your brain.
Brain Candy Events
When starting out as an independent consultant, I attended the Monterey TED conferences fairly regularly. There I engaged with brilliant thinkers and doers, fellow TEDsters, seeking out the ones who could inspire or push me outside my comfort zone. There were only 500 participants at those early conferences, so it was easy to engage them in stimulating conversations.
Online TED Talks offer travel-free alternatives to conference participation. That said, the recorded talks can’t offer the over-caffeinated stimulation of debating or sharing the live experience with other TED participants.
For people who can’t get on the TED invitation list, there are conference alternatives that require less time or money to attend, including local TED X events. For example, here some suggestions proposed via an online conversation at Quora. The SpeakingSherpa blog offers another list of alternative events.
Conferences aren’t the only opportunity for out-of-the-box learning experiences.
Find People to Learn From
My husband’s former manager has a novel approach to networking, one he relies on to trigger new learning experiences when he travels for business.
Rather than spend time relaxing with people he already knows, he chooses people who know more than he does, people he can learn something from. He invites them to conversation over coffee, beer or a shared meal.
If you’re not a natural extrovert, this “reach out” approach can be daunting, but it does offer real potential for learning from people who offer fresh thinking or unusual experiences…
Another alternative is to engage with young entrepreneurs who’d welcome some pro bono services. I volunteer periodically through local business accelerators as a way to recharge my thinking through exposure to passionate entrepreneurs.
This is a great immersion technique for people who learn best by hearing themselves think, as they engage with others.
Learn from Online or Published Resources
For introspective learners, there’s a treasure trove of published content that can inspire or introduce us to new possibilities. These materials are just right for quiet interludes or down-time that’s hard to predict in advance.
I relish the quieter periods, when clients go on vacation or get tied up with internal politics or budget wars. These interludes offer opportunities to reinvest in my own professional capital, from big ideas to new skills. I’ll invest hours in reading, although less obsessively than BillG’s Think Week.
Before the next project interlude I set aside potential books, articles, white papers, blog posts, etc.; I sort them into groups such as:
- Big ideas, mega-trends, food for thought
- New methods or practices (things that might be useful for future client work)
- New skills, new technologies (things to improve the capabilities I offer clients)
- Memes and themes others might be talking or thinking about (for social currency)
Some of the books and materials that ended up on my mini Think-Week list this year include:
- The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr
- B4B: How Technology and Big Data Are Reinventing the Customer-Supplier Relationship, by J.B. Wood, Todd Hewlin and Thomas Lah
- A Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations into Advantages, and Why It’s Everyone’s Business, by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden
- Buyer Personas: How to Gain Insight into Your Customer’s Expectations, Align Your Marketing Strategies, and Win More Business, by Adele Revella
- Show and Tell: How Everybody Can Make Extraordinary Presentations, by Dan Roam
And as inspiration for personal development, I’ve also committed to reading and practicing:
- Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn (an introduction to the practice of mindfulness)
Although it may not be obvious why, I find mindfulness practice enormously beneficial to the practice of consulting. Mindfulness teaches us, through practice, to cultivate:
…the energy of curiosity, inquiry, investigation, openness, availability, engagement with the full range of phenomena experienced by human beings.
—Jon Kabat-Zin, Wherever You Go, There You Are
These qualities are ideal for Think Week, but even more so for every interaction with clients, friends and family — not to mention our moment-by-moment noticing of our own inner lives.
These are some of the resources that have enriched my thinking and understanding this summer. They’ve become welcome additions to my professional library, and my consulting practice. I hope you too can find the time and motivation to adapt Think Week to your own consulting cadence.