Thursday, September 29, 2011

My Non-Linear Work Stream

In the era before Blackberrys, iPhones, instant messaging, social networks, and blogs,  I had a predictable day.

I could look at my week and count the meetings, lectures, phone calls, writing, and commuting I had to do.

Although my schedule was busy, I could schedule exercise time, family time, and creative time.

Today, I would not describe my work day as linear or predictable.   I do as much as I can, attending to every detail I remember, and hope that by the end of the week the trajectory is positive and the urgent issues are resolved.

Here's what I mean.

Since there are no barriers to communication, everyone can communicate with everyone.   Every issue is escalated instantly.   Processes for decision making no longer involve thoughtful steps that enabled many problems to resolve themselves.     We're working faster, but not necessary working smarter.   We're doing a greater quantity of work but not necessarily a higher quality of work.

Everyone has a mobile device and their thoughts of the moment can be translated into a message or phone call, creating a work stream of what amounts to hundreds of "mini-meetings" every day.

As issues are raised over the wire, the follow on cc's result in a volley of messages, thoughts, and more "mini-meetings".

The linear part of our work streams - face to face meetings, presentations, and travel - interrupt the non-linear work streams running through our digital lives.   Watch how many people use their mobile devices while in meetings and lectures.   Watch how many people need their Blackberry pried from their hands by flight attendants as planes are taking off.    Each day has turned into two work days - the linear one which is scheduled and the non-linear 24 hour flow through our devices and social networking applications.

I do my best to resolve every issue and declare closure on the events of each day.   However, I find myself waking up from my few hours of sleep with a full queue of tasks because our non-linear work stream is no longer is bounded by a work day.

What are the solutions to the overload we are all currently experiencing?

1.  We could eliminate the concept of 1 hour meetings, 1 hour lectures, and airline travel, realizing that much of what we need to do can be accomplished in tweets, emails, instant messages, and calls.   The non-linear work stream becomes our work and we stop trying to schedule a linear workday in the middle of it.

2.  Alternatively, we can realize that the non-linear work stream is ultimately unsustainable, tossing our mobile devices as in the Corona beer commercial.

3.  We could begin to reduce the non-linear work stream by de-enrolling from Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Plaxo and Instant messaging.  We could maintain just a single email account and triage it well.

I'm not sure which answer is right, but I do believe that the conflict between our linear and non-linear work streams has reached the point where we all have "continuous partial attention"  unable to focus more than a few minutes on any one linear task.

I write my blogs in the middle of the night because that is the only moment when the non-linear work steam dips to a point that I can capture my thoughts in a single burst of uninterrupted writing.

It's clear to me that our work lives and styles are evolving.  Might there be a day when "work" is plugging into a network and managing the stream of communication, decisions, and  ideas for 9 hours a day, then unplugging and turning the stream over to the next person on shift?  Sounds very Metropolis but I'm not sure any of us can return to the linear work streams of the past.


Don Livsey said...

What to ignore, and for how long? As with the linear day some things tend to get solved by the people that need to solve them. When I do have to get involved, there's a history to read.

sallyhealthcaretech said...

I can definitely relate to the whole working faster but not necessarily smarter thing. I can get a lot accomplished in an hour online than I can doing things "manually" (i,e, typing instead of writing on paper), but does that mean the quality of my work will be better? Absolutely not! It just means I was able to get the same amount of work done quicker. Very thought-provoking article, thanks for sharing. It really made me think.

Unknown said...

So John, what is your work schedule in general... I am up and in the office at 5:00 AM... Running a IT shop... Interested in how you manage your schedule...

Anonymous said...

I am just reading this article several months after it was posted. I have to say, I experience the same set of problems.

I am also seeing this expressed by physicians using EMRs who have staff that send many more tasks/questions to them than was possible in the paper/phone/fax world.

It seems like part of the solution is to empower those closer to a problem the latitude to solve the problem. That has risks, but when executed well can be satisfying.

I am constantly asking myself "what level of the organization should I be focused on" and "how can I help my staff be as effective as possible".

Excellent post.

Todd Rowland

Nancy said...

I came across this article because I was reading your article on the Frog Skin (from the bridging apps review) and just kept reading!) You've put into words what I've been thinking for quite some time. Thank you. I'm sending this on to my friends and colleagues. As the mother of a young man with special needs, my solution has been easier. I'm too busy with him to Tweet or Facebook, so I've never even started! But this is definitely food for thought. I also find myself writing my blog in the wee hours of the night when life slows down just long enough for the fog to clear.

Thanks for your insight.