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The Official Baldrige Blog

riding mower

Three of the questions in the Senior Leadership item in the Baldrige Excellence Builder are: 1. How do senior leaders set your organization’s vision?; 2. How do senior leaders create a focus on action that will achieve the organization’s mission?;  and 3. How do senior leaders create an environment for success now and in the future? The last question includes considerations of organizational and personal learning and innovation.

I do not believe any leader can do justice to these important questions without devoting time to reflection, contemplative thinking, and challenging basic organizational and personal assumptions. The time many leaders spend in reactive thinking, firefighting, and solving problems does not substitute for reflection and “future” thought. Frequently fires and problems can and should be delegated to those with direct responsibility. And frequently, those issues become an excuse for having no time for the more important strategic thinking.

It is well known among Baldrige Performance Excellence Program staff that as Director I used my grass mowing time each week (a four-hour riding mower experience) as my time to reflect and do "future-thinking." There was a running joke where I would be asked on Monday mornings if I had mowed over the weekend and then people would wait for my new ideas, hair-brained or otherwise. The first thoughts about a Baldrige Executive Fellows Program was a result of mowing and contemplating how we could attract senior leaders who don’t know about Baldrige to the opportunities the Baldrige Framework and community can offer their organization’s journey to excellence. The idea started with blowing up the boundary condition that our education mission was restricted to training examiners and sharing best practices through writing and conferences.

According to Reeves, Torres, and Hassan in a recent HBR blog, Albert Einstein came up with his theory of relativity while riding his bicycle and Warren Buffett reads for six hours a day to inform himself. They state that, “reflective thinking (slow and deliberate) and reactive thinking (fast and instinctual) effectively exist at opposite ends of a switch.” Only one process can be on at any given time. As with others who have written on the topic, they conclude that a leader needs to schedule unstructured thinking time. Yana Kakar, Global Managing Partner of Dalberg reserves 3 two-hour blocks of time each week for reflective thinking. She states, “Thinking is the only thing you can’t outsource as a leader.”

Scott Eblin in a recent Government Executive blog states that there are five steps to creating time for reflective thinking:

  1. Commit to a topic
  2. Block some time
  3. Go somewhere else
  4. Immerse yourself
  5. Take notes to document your thoughts and add to them as ideas occur

Here is my approach to reflective thinking that has helped me over the years:

  1. Define the problem or opportunity you want to explore
  2. Ask 5 why’s to make sure you are addressing the problem or opportunity at its root.
  3. Define existing boundary conditions that might be limiting or defining current approaches or that might be framing your current thinking
  4. Blow up those boundary conditions and consider new approaches; think outside the domain of current norms, industry sector, customers….
  5. Accumulate random ideas
  6. Sort and prioritize, if appropriate/needed
  7. Let it rest for a day
  8. Revisit the ideas with “refreshed eyes”
  9. Share the idea and let colleagues build on it

Do you make time for reflective thinking? How do you avoid distractions? What is your process for reflective thinking?

Please share your thoughts!

About the author

Harry Hertz “The Baldrige Cheermudgeon”

I am Harry Hertz, the Baldrige Cheermudgeon, and Director Emeritus of the Baldrige Program. I joined the Program in 1992 after a decade in management in the analytical chemistry and chemical sciences...

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I agree completely that reflective thought is vitally importantl. Thank you for sharing your approach, Harry!

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