Dec 22, 2007

Think Week

We always need new insights to move forward in life, and Think Week is a great way to get them.

This experience reminds me of Bill Gates’s Think Week. Think Week is the week taken by Bill Gates to go for a retreat and spend time to ponder the future of Microsoft and the industry. He does it twice a year and has done it for over 12 years. The insights from the Think Weeks give strategic direction to Microsoft to embrace the future.

While mine isn’t exactly the same as the Bill Gates’s Think Week (for one thing, Bill Gates spends the whole week just to think while I didn’t), I do feel the benefit of getting fresh insights and perspectives by taking time away from normal routine. It makes me think that I may need to have more dedicated Think Weeks in the future. If even a “partial” Think Week could give me some good insights, I wonder what a dedicated Think Week might do.

How does Bill Gates do his Think Week? There is an excellent article from The Wall Street Journal which describes it. Here are how he does it:

  1. Two months before the Think Week, his technical assistant collects papers from every corner of Microsoft and prioritizes them.
  2. He takes a helicopter or seaplane to a cottage on a quiet waterfront.
  3. He bars all outside visitors — including family and Microsoft staff — during the week except for a caretaker who slips him two simple meals a day.
  4. He reads 100 or more papers during the week, some of which could be 100-pagers.
  5. He writes detailed comments on the papers he reads. The printout of his comments could be 6-inch thick!
  6. Some days he works 18 hours straight.
  7. By week’s end, he sends e-mails to hundreds of people and writes a Think Week summary for executives.
  8. In the weeks since returning to his regular schedule, he holds follow-up meetings.

We can learn a lot from the way Bill Gates does his Think Week. Here are some lessons for an effective Think Week:

1. Allocate enough time

Without allocating enough time, we won’t be able to look at the whole picture and get valuable insights. While seven days might be too long for most of us (Bill Gates does the thinking for a huge company by the way), we should be sure that we allocate enough time to look at the whole picture.

2. Prepare what we are going to think about

Bill Gates’s technical assistant collects papers and prioritizes them long before the Think Week begins. Similarly, we should prepare the topics we are going to think about and collect the necessary resources in advance.

3. Stay away from our normal routine

While not all of us can afford to go to “a cottage on a quiet waterfront”, we should stay away from our normal routine as much as possible. Doing so allows us to take a holistic view at things without getting lost in details.

4. Make serious effort on thinking

If we are not serious enough, the Think Week could easily become Vacation Week in which we have a lot of fun but do very little thinking. Bill Gates works long hours during the Think Week (which could be 18 hours straight) and it shows how serious the effort he puts on thinking.

5. Take detailed notes of every idea we get

If we think hard, there should be a lot of details that emerge. We should record all of them. A 6-inch thick printout indicates that Bill Gates’s comments are very detailed.

6. Follow up the ideas

Without following up the ideas, the Think Week would lose its value. The Think Week is useful if it could change the way we live and work, and that is possible only if we follow up the ideas.

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