Monday, August 11, 2014

Clutter in the workplace

There was a piece in a recent Economist on how organizations need to wage battle against bureaucracy/clutter in the workplace, and it had me at ‘hello’:

PETER DRUCKER once observed that, “Much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.” (Source: The Economist)

The essay (by Schumpeter; no, not that Schumpeter – he’s dead: it’s a nom de plume) went on to tease out the elements that slow organizations down.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has been studying organizational complexity, for nearly 60 years. They have a formula for defining complexity that includes the number of management layers, the number of corporate objectives, and the number of co-ordinating bodies (whatever that means, but it sure sounds like it adds an unnecessary level of complexity to the mix). According to BCG’s calculations, organization complexity has increased by a factor of six since 1955.

The most insanely bureaucratic company I ever worked for was Wang Labs.

One the one hand, in terms of complexity, it was all rather simple: Dr. Wang made pretty much every decision even, it was rumored, on the weight and quality of the paper that data sheets were printed on.

Knowing exactly where the buck stopped should have simplified things, but it was working your way up to where the buck stopped that could bog you down.

Getting anything done at Wang was a colossal hassle.

Permission to go on a business trip required 4 to 5 levels of signature.

OK, your trip didn’t have to be signed off on by Dr. Wang.

But it did have to be okayed by Horace Tsiang, the EVP who was Dr. Wang’s right-hand man.

This was in a company that had over 30,000 employees, and revenues of $3B – back in the good old days, when those billions were actually in revenues (as opposed to “market value” funny money), and a billion dollars actually meant something.

Working through and around the Wang bureaucracy was depressing and enervating.

There were, of course, ways around some things.

Those of us with software applications with a limited audience were known to bypass the normal product release process and cut our own disks – 8” floppies – and send them off to our customers. One of my colleagues went so far as to shrink wrap her product’s documentation, using a hairdryer and Saran Wrap, so that it would look more official.

But for other things…

When I was first at Wang, a guy in my group made a bet with me that it would take me 6 months to get a function strip printed. (A function strip was a piece of plastic that you used to overlay part of the keyboard. Product-specific roles for each of the function keys were printed on it.)

Well, he was almost right.

It took me only 5 1/2 months of continuous pushing and shoving to get function strips printed for my product.

Of course, by that point, we’d added a new function, so the strips were now partially obsolete.

Wang didn’t go out of business because of its insane bureaucracy, but it sure didn’t help matters any.

Meetings are another cluttering time waster.

The most meeting’d up company I ever worked for was Genuity.

You could start in on meetings at 8 a.m. and not come up from under until 6 p.m., with barely a bio-break in there.  While you may have had the opportunity to run to the lav, there was no time for meals, so first-thing meetings had full breakfast served; mid-morning meetings brought you coffee and donuts; lunch was served at noon meetings; and there were snacks brought in to mie-afternoon gatherings.

To say that nothing was accomplished at these meetings almost goes without saying, especially the ones that “featured” senior executives, which were characterized by sniping, subterfuge, backbiting, obstructionism, fief protection, and plain old garden-variety politicking.

Sometimes I just kicked back and enjoyed the show, but mostly it was god-awful and frustrating.

Genuity didn’t go out of business because of its insane meeting culture, but it sure didn’t help matters any.

After all, a fully meeting-involved day takes a toll on productivity and morale:

Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School studied the daily routines of more than 230 people who work on projects that require creativity. As might have been expected, she found that their ability to think creatively fell markedly if their working days were punctuated with meetings.

Another form of clutter is e-mail.

Bain estimates that the number of external communications that managers receive has increased from about 1,000 a year in 1970 to around 30,000 today. Every message imposes a “time tax” on the people at either end of it; and these taxes can spiral out of control unless they are managed.

BCG. Bain. Must be fun working for an organization that gets to study and tsk-tsk bureaucratic, meeting’d up organizations. I think I missed my calling.

But yes, there are way too many e-mails flying around out there.

Two tips for not letting e-mails get in your way:

  • Don’t read anything you’re cc’d on. (Do, however, read everything you’re bcc’d on: this could be good.)
  • Limit your email read and response to a couple of set time each day.

Not that I’ve ever taken my own advice here.

Anyway, the best thing about working on my own is how de-cluttered it all is.

Sure, I have to deal with an occasional bureaucracy. Mostly it’s around how to get paid. (A few years back, one of my clients introduced a swell new system, “which will greatly benefit our suppliers.” I can’t believe that I was the only “supplier” who found that moving from a system that got you paid in two weeks to one that got your paid in 3 months (maybe) was a benefit.) Anyway, getting paid is a absolutely worth going through the bureaucracy for.

But mostly my work life is bureaucracy free, as the folks I directly work with take care of it behind the scenes.

I do meet with clients regularly, but they’re always purposeful meetings, focused specifically on whatever it is I’m working on.

No more mind (and butt) numbing meetings that don’t seem to have any purpose other than to make it look like the attendees are busy and important.

There’s no escaping e-mails, but, just like with meetings, I don’t tend to get added to e-mails strings just for the hell of it. Most of the work e-mails I send and receive are making or responding to specific requests.

So maybe the best way to de-clutter the workplace is to work for yourself.

Now if only I could get around to clearing the clutter off of my desk.

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