Root out 4 time wasters. Modularize your job properly

Productivity is all the rage

We hear of drilling our inbox down to zero.  We hear about agile sprints and personal kan bans.

All these productivity systems have one thing in common.  Finish what you start and don’t start what you cannot finish.

Work cycles

Now some poor unfortunates have job cycles of 20 seconds.  These jobs are mindless.

Others have job cycles of between 30 seconds to 10 minutes.  They are called managers. (You didn’t know that?  Now, you do.  Professor Mintzberg of McGill University brought that to our attention a long time ago.  When you work with managers, break things into small pieces for them!)

Others have long job cycles.  University lecturers have “seasons” of 7 years – from sabbatical to sabbatical.  That is the time it takes to write a proposal, get funding, do the work, write it up and publish it.  They give lectures that are 50 minutes long.

If they are wise though, they remember that they are human and few of us can concentrate for longer than 10 to 15 minutes. Hence, a university lecture is broken into five parts.

  • What this lecture is about.
  • First chunk of theory
  • Change-up – change pace, delivery style and activity of students
  • Second chunk of theory
  • Memorable conclusion

Design what goes in to your job cycle

The secret of any job, I think, is breaking it into parts that fit our ability to start-and-stop and link it to other parts.

3 components of jobs design

Job design is about modularization and all 3 things matter

  • Our attention span and the features of our “box” – the human body.
  • The size and shape of the piece that we are working on
  • The way we link one piece to another to make a coherent whole.

The 4 time wasters in badly designed jobs

When we get any of the 3 features of job design wrong, then we create 4 inefficiencies.

  • We spend the 15 minute chunk working out what we are supposed to be doing rather than doing it
  • We do the wrong task because the linking mechanisms are sending us the wrong messages
  • Our attention is split or frayed with fatigue and our work is poor and has to be re-done
  • Or the task we are doing isn’t bundled properly and we cannot start, finish and put it back in the pool in one pass.

The job of managers and job designers

Inefficient managers tend to think that problems with productivity are to do with the way the task itself is done.  Sometimes that is the case.  To play tennis well, I practice the same shot over and over again.  Training time is important.

Most times, we are wasting time because we cannot start and finish something completely.  And on big tasks, we haven’t broken the task into modules that can be started, finished and handed over.

There is a genius to managing work.  And there is an explanation about why some teams get done more than others.

They aren’t having to redo work.  Everything is handled once, by the first person who touches it. And never again.

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The greatest leaders spark curiosity about the system

Our goal had gone walkabout

On my travels, I found myself teaching systems thinking in a university which broke a large course into 25 student groups. A few people determined the curriculum and an army of people taught students who wrote a common examination.

I was shocked by the examination papers. Students rambled on tossing in whatever thoughts came to mind.

We sensibly had an interim examiners meeting and I voiced my concerns. Well, it seems that I was the one to have misunderstood the curriculum.  The curriculum designers were trying to convey the idea that there are many perspectives on any issue. They didn’t see a common goal or direction as an essential part of any system.

I am cursed with an “open mind” so I hastened to the internet to double-check and the idea has hung around my mind ever since as unfinished business does.

3 misunderstandings about system goals

I’m afraid that systems do have common goals. That is entirely the point. But it seems that this is a point that is often misunderstood.

Some people think the system’s goal is their goal

No! There are still multiple perspectives. We can add the system as a virtual person and ask what is the system’s goal! We have the boss’ goal, we have the system, goal and we have each of our goals.

Some people think there is no common goal

It is true that the organization does not have a goal. An organization cannot think! When we say that the organization’s goal is X, we must ask who says that?

But we not only want to understand the multiplicity of goals but we also want to understand how the many goals come together and how the system goal morphs in response. We cannot ignore the system goal ~ or we do as a sailor might ignore the weather ~ at our peril.

Some people think goals are constant

They are ~ for a second. Goals morph as situations change. When we ignore the dynamic quality of goals, then we get mission creep. Conditions change and if we don’t stop to think about what we want, what we all want, we find ourselves doing too much of one thing and too little of another. A mess in other words. Goals are infinitely variable.

Articulating the morphing of goals in any group is what makes a leader

A leader understand the multiplicity of goals in a community and sees how are contradictions and conflicts, agreements and alliances come together to make us what we are – how the whole comes from the parts and affects them in turn.

A leader is a person who is able to articulate this dynamic mix so that we feel supported by the whole and essential to its well being. This is a tough call when a group is determined to quarrel or terrified by its destiny. The hall mark of a leader is that he or she looks for the common ground where we all belong and keeps looking.

Facilitating the agreement is the hallmark of the greatest leaders

Helping us find that common ground is the hallmark of the greatest leaders. We often doff our caps to leaders who were in the right place at the right time. They represent what is the best about ourselves and we throw them into the limelight to remind us of who we are and where we are going. In time, we choose a new leader because our direction has changed and we need new icon on our bows.

We remember these leaders because these were times that we felt great. The greatest leaders, though, help us identify the right questions. They know how to “bound” the group. They know how to focus our attention on the question that we must answer if we are to find the way forward and the place where we feel great.

That’s why it seems as if great leaders set goals. They set a boundary which focuses our attention on question-asking.

It is not the goal that is important, but our compulsion to find out how we should reach the goal.

Colin Powell once said “Leadership is about ‘Follow Me!. Even if it is only out of curiosity.”

Leadership is the art of engaging the imagination in the search for collective answers.

The system is important. With good leadership, we accept the system as a virtual person ~ a popular virtual person who we all want to look after and please.

Want efficiency? Make the space and time for people to be efficient.

Chain-of-command

Imagine 6 000 students gathering in a hall and becoming a little rowdy.  The police arrive. The local Chief Constable arrives.   So does the head of the riot police.  Who is in charge?  Who decides what will happen?

Well, the riot police often think they are in charge because they are bigger and more powerful. The local Chief Constable is likely to assert him or herself, though, and say, “I am in charge in this place.  Everyone will take their instructions for me.”

Chain-of-command in business

We might think that this reasoning only begins in the uniformed services. But it is relevant in business as well.

At any moment, it is someone’s job to make a decision.  We should not get in their way. Even when we are bigger and more powerful, we may not have all the information we need to make a good decision.  Nor can we follow through.  We simply have no business making decisions that we will not see through to the very end.

Work & organizational psychologists and the chain-of-command

Work & organizational psychologists, or occupational psychologists as they are known in UK, or IO psychologists as they are known in the US, are well trained to identify who is making the decision and what information they need to make it.

We often have massive status but we should not get in the way of the people who are doing the work. We wouldn’t get in the way of a surgeon and we should not get in the way of anyone else either.

Work & organizational psychologists respect the skill of decision making in each and every job

The information that people use to make decisions is also not immediately obvious to us.  Skilled workers have mental models for organizing their work.  They have goals, they recognize information as signals, and they pick up information as feedback which tells them whether they are approaching their goals.  We don’t have their expertise and when we move things around, we can utterly muddle the way they organize information.  Taking a single piece of paper off someone’s desk can be akin to knocking out a a supporting wall of a house -whereupon, it all falls down.

When we are working in someone elses workplace, we are trying to read what they are noticing, what they are responding to, and what they are trying to achieve.  None of this may be obvious particularly if they’ve been doing the job for a long time.

Work & organizational psychologists do not set up goals or targets for other people

Setting up goals or targets for skilled people is utterly absurd. When we do so, we imply that they have no mental models or expertise to organize and to bring into being a smoothly operating system.

Setting up targets shows incompetence on our part.

Goals & targets are set up in basic professional training

The time to set goals and targets is during professional training.  At that point people are learning what information is available and how it comes together into a working system.

Everything we do thereafter needs to recognize that organization or requires a hefty reinvestment.  We will always look first to see if we can wrap a system around skill models before we take that route.

So how do we work out how people make decisions?

  • We watch what they do.
  • We watch how they respond to different situations.
  • We notice what irritates them because that tells us their efficient operations have been disrupted.
  • When it is safe to do so, we interrupt and listen to their inner talk as they try to remember where they are in a complicated process!

And above all, we are patient.

The people we are working with may have inefficient habits.  But, it is much more likely that they have deep professional considerations for what they are doing.

Our job is to broker boundaries and space for people to do their work

Our first obligation as psychologists is to broker the space in the organization for people to follow the logic of their trade or profession.

Are we doing that?  Are we adequately setting the boundaries and making the space and time for people to be effective?

What about your work is important, valuable and innovative?

Day One at Xoozya (cont’d)

“So what is my first goal”, I said to the HR Director.  “The amount of work on my desk is expanding exponentially and I’ve only been here a few hours.  I must find an avatar, explore the communication system, and map my skills set.”

What are your priorities?  I know you will say get settled, but all employers say that, and they don’t mean it.  What do you want done by when?”

Kick the habit of looking to managers for goals

“Well, Goal One” Peter said, “is to kick the habit of looking to managers for goals.  We are not here to set goals. We provide an arena or framework for you to work, alone if you like and with other people if you wish.  We are a huge company and you can work with whomever you choose and with whomever chooses to work with you.”

Acknowledge your own judgment

“That’s stressful at first because it feels as if you have no boundaries.  And to feel oriented, we all need boundaries.”

“But you do have boundaries.  You’ve made choices all your life.  You’ve attended to some things and ignored others.  In your judg                    ment, some things are important and command your attention.”

“We will ask you to do a third task.  We will leaving your avatar to the end of the month.  In addition to exploring the communication system and thinking about your skill set, you have a third task, which is this.

What it important, valuable and innovative about your current project?

“Write down what you are working on now.  And then tell me

  • Why this project is important to you
  • Why you think is is valuable
  • Why you think it is innovative.

Why do you feel vital and alive when you are working on this project and why do you believe it adds vitality and quality to the way we live?”

“Let me give you an example.

Today, a young post-graduate in Sydney, Marsha Gittens,  published a post in Brazen Careerist on what she wants from work– her career must-haves.  She wants money, good leadership, perks, etc.  We all want the same things but right now the financial benefits of the corporate world are uppermost in her mind because she is making the change from being a student, with all that entails, to being a member of the corporate world, and all that entails.

But financial rewards are not her project.  The move from the student world to the corporate world is her project and we are all better off if we acknowledge that openly.  She will spend the next year or two finding out where she fits into the corporate world and she wants to know how roles are structured, what these roles involve, and how important they are to other people.  At the end of the year she will have done well if she has gained this knowledge that she does not have now.  Much of this knowledge can only be gained from the inside.  From being in a company. From working on a team.  From doing a job and getting her hands dirty.

“So she will not move as a spectator.  She moves as a player and she is looking for assignments that will give her the combination of overall understanding and hands-on experience consistent with her skills.

“You sought membership of Xoozya for reasons you told us when we recruited you, and for reasons you’ll have kept to yourself.  Whatever has been put on the table, at this juncture in your life, there is something you want to achieve and you believe that we are the tool for you to achieve it.  There are resources you expect to find here and that you will look for.

The young Australian post-graduate wants to find her toe hole in the corporate world.  To do that she needs to understand the corporate world.”

“You are mid-career and you want . .  . what?  Describe what you came here to achieve.  What are you working on and why did you believe that we have the resources you need.”

“What we suggest you do is write down your current project and answer those three questions.

  • What about the project is important to you?
  • Why do you believe it is valuable?
  • What about the project is truly innovative?  Why is it so important to be doing this work now and what about it is so special that it cannot be ignored?

Then we’ll talk again.  How about this time next Friday?”

And if you are enjoying this series, please do feel free to join in!

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And PS, if you are new to this blog, Xoozya is an utterly fictitious organization. This series began on the spur of the moment as I started to explored the principles of games design and Ned Lawrence of Church of Ned mentioned how much time people put into designing their avatars, or online identities. Xoozya is an attempt to imagine what an organization would look, sound and feel like if it were run along lines recommended by contemporary management theorists.

And PPS Ned is an online writing coach and is available for hire.