July 17, 2010 2 Comments
Observations on the modern, collaborative, fast-paced, high-tech workplace:
- Email is counterproductive. Email is friction, and friction slows things down. The time people spend ‘checking email’ is corrosive: it feels like work but is kinda not, which means people are less productive than they could/should be but (unlike with more standard forms of unproductivity) don’t know it. It’s also a method of time-delay. Emailing someone or some team that they should do or answer this, that or the other, is a method of not doing it yourself and/or kicking the can down the road. Now when you’re asked if you did it, you can say ‘well I sent them an email but they haven’t responded yet’. Wow how helpful. And they in turn might just bounce it to someone else. This can continue quite a bit. Now imagine it happening among people who are in different time zones. The telephone (if you can’t just talk to someone in person) is much better. Pick up the damn phone.
- Do it yourself. Divvying up certain tasks to take advantage of ‘teamwork’ just makes what should be simple tasks use up way more man-hours. If there’s some basic but laborious task, I can do it myself, check it myself, see it through, and I’ll know that it’s right (or what’s wrong about it). Or, I can hand it off to a team and ask them to do it. This will result: (1) they will ‘split it up’ amongst the team, which just means it will get done as slowly and messily as the slowest/messiest person, (2) they will make errors which I will have to spend time checking, correcting, and sending back to them, (3) I will have to do nearly as much work in finding/checking for errors as if I had just done it myself, (4) the whole process ends up taking much longer.
- Do new things slowly and carefully. Sometimes you’re asked to do something randomly, maybe a quick and dirty calculation, so you are tempted to treat it like a one-off and do it as quickly as you can, not sweating a bit of sloppiness. Fire and forget and move on! Boy you’re fast! Makes sense once or twice if it works, but the problem is that more often than not (unless it’s so bad as to be obviously unusable) you’ll be asked to do it again, with minor variations. And again. “Hey, you had that spreadsheet/data right? Can you dig that back up and refresh something for me?” Time after time after time. Like Dexter in the TV show, having to come back to the crime scene to revisit your sloppy/dirty handiwork. This is the punishment you get anytime you’re doing a passable job: you’ll have to repeat it over and over. With that in mind, set it up from the start as generically and user-friendly as possible – for yourself. Approach everything as if you’re going to be asked to do it all the time.
- Play dumb. Make people explain what they’re asking you to do. See if they actually know what they’re asking you to do. It never hurts, because they may not! Or, once the problem is fully explained, you may be able to suggest another approach (one that doesn’t rely on you having to do anything or wastes far fewer peoples’ time).
- Don’t trust numbers. Numbers and calculations are fine and good but you need to first understand and think about where they are coming from. Understand that many of them actually come from people, and if so, try to understand the chain (even to the point of physically observing it) that leads from some dude’s brain to an email he sends to someone else who saves the number in a database to a calculation keying off that number to the application that summarized that calculation to (etc etc) to the number you’re looking at. You may realize that you don’t need to treat that number as holy writ, and that tracking down every last digit or dotting every single “i” is a waste of your time. Every number more complicated than something like ‘today’s date’ has an implicit error bar around it.
Let’s summarize that again, more briefly, by simply listing the things I’m citing as bad and counterproductive:
- Speed in new tasks
- Speed in requested tasks
- Relying on data
Yup, that about covers it – that’s what I’ve learned about the modern, collaborative, fast-paced, high-tech workplace.