Chasing greater effectiveness

Grousing is a feature of all organizations. Generally it’s a healthy thing. It’s part of the lubrication that lets them function. There are times, however, when you need to keep an eye on it.

In the earliest days of Diamond it got out of hand as we were trying to to forge one organizational culture out of the band of renegades who had been persuaded to abandon (or were forced out of) their existing organizations. Consultants are not known for their shy, retiring natures. There came a point where one of my partners acquired and issued a set of lapel pins that read “No Whining.” Good for a laugh and it did lower the temperature a bit.

Lately, I’ve been thinking on what a tricky challenge it can be to distinguish between whining and productive critiques. This is particularly true in knowledge intensive kinds of work. If you are turning wrenches and cranking out standardized widgets, there’s generally one right way to do a task. And those with experience are the right ones to teach and enforce that one right way.

Unfortunately, that mindset spills over into settings where it doesn’t apply. We talk about the McKinsey Way or the way we do things at Amazon or Google. We learn to advocate for ideas and positions with more certainty and confidence than the facts warrant—ideas get packaged and sold without suitable qualifications, warnings, and caveats. Everyone becomes a salesman (man is the appropriate gendered term in this instance I think).

There are two lines of attack on this, depending on whether you find yourself on the delivery or receiving end of these conversations. Let’s start with the receiving side; how to be a better consumer of pitches about how to be a more effective knowledge worker.

The first order of business is to realize that you almost never hear a pitch about how to be more effective; you are pitched on how to be more productive. The unexamined assumption is that your goal is to turn out more or to turn it out faster. The problem is that treating knowledge work as simply another kind of production work will often get you enough payoff to fool you into thinking that your overall approach is sound.

When you inevitably reach a state of disappointment with the latest shiny tool/approach/practice, you need to recognize that your disappointment is not with the new tool/approach/practice. It is with the poor mental model hiding in the conventional pitch—that then invokes inadequate patterns you apply to the system you are trying to modify.

I don’t have this all worked out yet. I am convinced that you can’t treat knowledge work as simple production work. I think it is closer to making art. Somehow, you have to simultaneously consider the piece of work at hand, your techniques, and your evolving body of work. At least. There’s a continual process of taking stock, of asking what still works, of experimenting with new ideas, of filtering all well-intentioned advice through the selfish stance of how does this work for me.

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