We ask on behalf of others who can’t or won’t ask – because we want their question to be heard by others, or because we want them to have an answer they need.
We want an answer so that we can make something better for someone else.
We ask to show the person we’re asking that we’re engaged.
We ask to give the person we’re asking the chance to talk about something that’s important to them.
We ask to invite the person we’re asking to go in a new direction or consider something more deeply.
These are all fine reasons. What we need to watch out for are the questions we ask for other reasons:
We ask to get attention, so that we look smart to the other people in the room.
We ask to make the person we’re talking to look small, or foolish, or unprepared.
We ask to score points in private arguments.
We don’t really ask at all – we take the opportunity of asking a question to make our own point to the room.
We ask to avoid thinking things through for ourselves.
Not all of these are bad all the time – there’s a time and a place for pointing out the flaws in another person’s thinking. But we’ll rarely win friends or influence by attention seeking or point scoring, and we get the best value of all when we do the harder work of answering our own questions.
I love old buildings , and I usually feel a strange sort of curiosity mixed with nostalgia for the people and cultures that made them. Just in the UK I’d love to see the castle garrisoned by knights and squires, the barn full of hay and animals, the old mill humming, the Tudor pub in its heyday, the telephone exchange building at its historical cutting edge, the cathedral decked out in coloured paint, the rows of clerks in the bank, the WW2 airfield lined with Spitfires and Glen Miller on the gramophone…
Dead buildings – either ruins, or frozen-in-time museums and country houses – seem that much more evocative than the ones that manage to stay in use for centuries, which end up watered down and bastardised…
But that’s probably because we’re paying attention to the wrong things. We fixate on a neat snapshot of a culture at a moment in time, forgetting that these places grew out of a messy and dynamic culture just like ours, were disruptive (and probably disturbing) when they were built, and were evolving from the moment they were finished. We’ve always been leaving the village behind, and we couldn’t stay, and we couldn’t go back – even way back then.
Buildings stay alive and socially profitable when they stay relevant – when we keep them alive by changing them and use the old spaces in new ways – often new ways to achieve old purposes.
The alternative is a building’s slow and expensive death as the network of life around them shifts and ceases to nourish them, at which point they decay and disappear until those that survive become old enough and scarce enough to become interesting again, and the past that they represent is far enough away from us to be the subject of nostalgia and museums.
And all of this is true of our organisations, too.
Another type of friction we experience is from the ongoing mental overhead of having too many balls in the air. Unfinished projects, unanswered emails, half-read books, unresolved decisions – all take a sliver of attention and emotional energy. This constant mental overhead acts a drag on our attention. reducing our ability to concentrate and – especially when we’re tired – making us feel overwhelmed and unable to decide.
Nameless dread is the emotional friction that comes with excessive mental overhead. it’s the lurking fear that we’re failing, letting people down, about to drown in jobs undone. It’s often a product of excessive mental overhead, or at least of the same root cause: too much on our plates, falling behind, living in fear that we’re about to be found out.
Things that help with managing mental overhead and nameless dread
Some kind of amazing to-do list system might capture everything, but I’m still waiting for something that works consistently for me… look out for a post from Sharky on the latest in workflow management.
Talking about things really helps with nameless dread – either with teammates (who might even work some kind of miracle to help you out) or friends who’ll hopefully help by giving you some perspective.
Hire someone to do some of the routine stuff – at work or at home.
A bit physical danger helps to put most of our fears in perspective: ‘worst possible outcome’ of the things that we dread rarely involve injury, death or dismemberment. Try contact, motor or extreme sports.
There’s a lot to be said for batching – saving up similar jobs and then working through them efficiently in one go.
But doing little jobs in free moments – in checking-the-news moments, social media moments, junky youtube moments – has its benefits too:
Doing little jobs can act like a form of mental keepy-uppy, keeping your head in the game and saving time when you come back to the larger job that the small job is part of;
Ticking off small jobs makes you feel good – which helps you do better work;
It may be less efficient than batching, but it reduces the cognitive and emotional friction that comes from carrying around a list of undone jobs – so the job might take a bit longer, but you’re faster once its done;
If you’re a bottleneck for other peoples’ work, your little job can unlock a lot of productivity;
Doing a job in the space between other stuff can create space for doing them in a new way, or for new connections between unrelated things – one of the benefits of having a little slack in the system.
The idea is really just this: time on a watch is not the same as time in your head. An hour can fly by or seemingly drag for eternity. Time as we actually experience it, rather than as we measure it, is subjective.
We all know this intuitively, and our culture has idioms for it (“time flies when…”) but it’s helpful to remember that this phenomena occurs on both sides of a many of our interaction at the same time, and in opposite directions.
The rule seem to be that the more urgent, important, personal something is to us, the less comfortable waiting becomes, and the more slowly time seems to pass (i.e. the longer a given amount of time seems). Conversely, time goes faster and a given amount of time seems shorter when the opposite conditions are true. Quality of relationship – levels of trust, how positive our disposition towards the other, the history of the current “waiting” – plays into things, and cultural norms will shape our feelings too.
Note that none of this is “reasonable” – it’s just how we seem to work.
Conclusions and applications
A reply to a message probably needs to go a bit earlier than you think to seem courteous and pronpt. In my case this means that the extra day’s delay in replying to messages that “can wait” is less okay than I think it is.
The flip side of 1: you should take longer to assume you’ve been disregarded or snubbed.
Remember that people reading novels exist in different time zones. “Reasonable response time” is twice as long as is usual… which will stretch to at least four times as long as seems reasonable to you if you’relookingafterchildren and waiting for relief.
Get off the phone / out of the bathroom faster than seems reasonable – especially if someone is waiting to use it.
This is all a long way of saying that it probably behooves us (and will almost certainly benefit us) a to be a little more attentive to others and respond a little faster, and to be a little more patient and forgiving.
If you ask most people who run a factory, or an organisation or a sports team, what they’re looking for is a taut, firm connection between and among everybody: everybody busy all the time. The reason that a bucket brigade is so much more efficient than people running back and forth and back and forth to the source of water is that it’s easier for people to efficiently pass the bucket from one to another than it is for them to run back and forth. You will put the fire out faster.
If you’ve ever seen an efficient juggling troupe or bucket brigade or a hockey line-up that’s passing, passing as it works its way down to the goal, it’s a thing of beauty. And so what we seek to achieve is that idea of synchronisation. But I’m here to tell you that you cannot maximise system efficiency by eliminating slack from the system. It feels like you should, but you can’t. And the reason you can’t is because of variability. Variability says that someone might be five minutes late for their appointment. Variability says there might be a custom order coming through that’s worth it for the organisation to take on. Variability says that some customers need to be treated differently from others. And when a system like that exists, when you have removed all of the slack, then when switching costs kick in, the whole system falls apart.
What’s the alternative? The alternative is a fire department with firemen who eat chili for three hours, waiting for the alarm to ring. If you were trying to get rid of slack what you’d do is say, “Let’s have exactly the right number of firemen so that when the average number of fires are happening, all of the fires are being addressed.” Which works great – except when the above number of fires show up. And when the above average number of fires show up, you don’t have enough firemen to go around.
And so what we have the opportunity to do as we organise our lives, as we dance with these systems, is to intentionally build slack into our systems. A buffer. A cushion. To avoid the emergency. Because in that buffer, we can work on the long term stuff. The firemen aren’t really eating chili… they’re using their downtime in a slightly productive way. But mostly what they’re doing is standing in reserve, waiting for when the emergency shows up so that they don’t have to say, “Oh, sorry your house burnt down.”
Seth Godin – Akimbo Season 4 Episode 20: Systems Thinking
Akimbo Season 4 Episode 20 (July 10, 2019) – Systems Thinking
This is a great episode of riffs on how systems create – and constrain – possibilities, and the opportunities that open up when systems change. Featuring Mr Heinz and the fictional (!) Betty Crocker.
Akimbo Season 4 Episode 18 (June 26, 2019) – Find the others: Apollo 11 and the making of culture
This episode isn’t flagged as an episode about systems or systems thinking, but that’s really what this telling of the story of going to the moon is all about. We watch the Space Race grow out of the wreckage of the Second World War and unfold across a network of more-and-less-and-un- expected connections within the complex adaptive systems of science, science fiction, culture and politics. I loved it.
Beatrix Potter has already been doing a lot of drawing and painting. This watercolour is from 1876, a couple of months before her tenth birthday:
Aged 17, she writes “I can’t settle to anything but my painting. I lost my patience over everything else.”
Beatrix Potter sells her first pieces of artwork, illustrations for a set of Christmas cards. She’s 24 years old.
Potter sends an illustrated letter to Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, which contains what will become the opening line of The Tale of Peter Rabbit:
Beatrix Potter turns the picture letter into a story. After a couple of false starts (including an alternative version of the story in verse written by another author), the book takes off. 28,000 copies – six printings – are sold by December 1902.
Potter is intimately involved in the design and publication of her books, and the development of spin-off projects and merchandising. She becomes a landowner and conservationist, “credited with preserving much of the land that now constitutes the Lake District National Park.”**
The Tale of Peter Rabbit has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.
So what, Sharky?
So this is a beautiful example of an overnight success that was decades in the making. It took thirty-six years – and probably thousands of sketches and paintings – for Beatrix Potter to become Beatrix Potter. She spent thirty-six years as the seed.
The theory of the business must be known and understood throughout the organisation. This is easy in the organization’s early days. But as it becomes successful, an organization tends increasingly to take its theory for granted, becoming less and less conscious of it. Then the organization becomes sloppy. It begins to cut corners. It begins to pursue what is expedient rather than what is right. It stops thinking. It stops questioning. It remembers the answers but has forgotten the questions. The theory of the business becomes “culture.” But culture is no substitute for discipline, and the theory of the business is a discipline.
The theory of the business has to be tested constantly. It is not graven on tablets of stone. It is a hypothesis, And it is a hypothesis about things that are in constant flux – society, markets, customers, technology. And so, built into the theory of the business must be the ability to change itself. Some theories are so powerful that they last for a long time. Eventually every theory becomes obsolete and then invalid. It happened to the GMs and the AT&Ts. It happened to IBM…*
Peter Drucker – Managing in a Time of Great Change (From The Daily Drucker)
*It happened to Compuserve, MySpace, Yahoo, Nokia…