Managing yourself as a knowledge worker – building guardrails

Working from home is revealing how much of our daily work is kept in check by guardrails we don’t see or think about. We’re struggling to explicitly handle and deal with stuff that the environment handled for us invisibly. I’ve written elsewhere about the value of making knowledge work visible to make it more manageable. This is further elaboration of that line of thought.

What’s guardrail? It would be anything in your environment that provides a constraint on how you work without interfering with the work. Examples include;

  • dedicated office space
  • dedicated personal computer in the office
  • work email address
  • work calendar with standing meetings scheduled
  • formal title and position in the organization
  • reporting relationship to a boss
  • specified working hours
  • work phone number and voice mail
  • team assignments

None of these things are exotic. We take them for granted and that’s the point. They help everyone “stay in their lane” and maintain focus on getting work done.

Being able to say “not my job” has been a time-honored prerogative of many an office drone and organizations functioned quite well. As you rise within an organization, there are fewer opportunities to claim “not my job.” As an executive much of your job is to define the jobs and the lanes. In well run organizations, executives also acquire support systems they can call on to handle that scope and responsibility.

Executives set agendas, which means they also set the boundaries in the environment that matter. If you accept that knowledge workers also function as executives, then one consequence is that knowledge workers are responsible for setting and managing their boundaries.

Carving out a lane is a more demanding task than staying in one.

If you’re a knowledge worker, you are only person aware of all the competing demands for your  attention. Matrix management is one technique to acknowledge and negotiate conflicting priorities. It also assumes that those managing a row or a column in the matrix know more than the individual knowledge worker occupying a matrix cell. I’m tempted to leave off the qualifier and visualize knowledge workers simply occupying cells.

To return to the perspective of an executive for a moment, executives contend with many distinct systems—leading their organizations, serving on boards of other organizations, collaborating with peer professionals, contributing to their communities, and the like.

Each of those systems operates on an implicit assumption that their priorities are preeminent. Which leaves you as an executive or knowledge worker as the only person in a position to reconcile competing priorities.

One element in that reconciliation is working out what to do about guardrails. We don’t tend to think about them if they are well designed. As a knowledge worker you get to lay down guardrails or choose to ignore them. Either way, the responsibility has to be yours.

This feels like a separate task from designing and managing your substantive knowledge work. Let me offer a simple example from my own work. In addition to my consulting work, I am teaching, I serve on several not-for-profit boards, and I manage several ongoing activities at our church. One of the things I’ve done to create guardrails between these responsibilities is  to use separate email addresses and discrete inboxes for each activity. I’m letting a simple feature of my technology environment help me define lanes.

This process of consciously seeking opportunities to define lanes or guardrails in the work environment is an example of what my friend Benn Konsynski describes as “cognitive reapportionment.” It is a component of being a knowledge worker in today’s environment.

We are all executives in a knowledge economy

Photo by Roberto Lopez on Unsplash

Peter Drucker is one of those intellectual heroes you end up with if you’re of a certain business/nerdish bent. What can you say about the guy generally thought of as one of the first management gurus who also observed that:

I have been saying for many years that we are using the word ‘guru’ only because ‘charlatan’ is too long to fit into a headline.

One of my favorite Drucker books is *The Effective Executive.* I did a fairly lengthy review a couple of years ago (Effective Executives Are Design Thinkers). His  argument is that executives must focus on being effective—on doing the right things—and not worry terribly much about whether they are efficient.

He would be bemused by today’s obsession with productivity and “getting things done.” He had no objection to doing things right; he simply thought it was a very distant second to doing the right thing.

Drucker is also credited with coining the term knowledge worker. Lately, I’ve been thinking that the term “worker” is misleading. A worker is someone who operates within the structure and guardrails laid down by those executives focusing on doing the right think. If we’re not careful, this absolves the worker from responsibility for choosing what constitutes “the right thing.”

How often have you heard someone claim that they are only a “worker bee?” Perhaps you’ve said it yourself at some point. This is an attempt to deny responsibility for effectiveness; to ask someone else to make the hard decisions about the right things to do.

What the knowledge economy does is to remove the distinctions between executive and worker. We are all both and own the problem of choosing the right things to do. Each of us needs to work out and continually update our list of right things to do; we are each responsible for becoming effective.

That’s much more demanding work than being efficient. Being efficient means optimizing within the context of a stable environment. Who wouldn’t like that?

The last few weeks have been a powerful reminder that we don’t operate in a stable environment. That has been true for some time. Now, it’s harder to pretend otherwise.

If we want stability, then we must create it from the choices we make.

This was Drucker’s insight about executives. Their first responsibility was to make conscious choices about what were the right things to do. What executives do is to create stability. And this responsibility now belongs to each of us.

Tackling technology complexity with stacks

Last time out we talked about the idea of a stack as a simple metaphor for organizing and thinking about underlying complexity in technology or organizations. I thought it would be worth taking a look at some of the origins of fighting complexity in the technology realm that brought us here.

Computer software is among the most complex constructs of human creativity. Wrestling that complexity under control has occupied the attention of many smart people. Talking about technology stacks is a shorthand way of thinking about this complexity. We’ve touched on the problem of complexity. The other problem we have to address is change.

There are three core concepts from the systems design world that are worth understanding and adapting to the organizational realm. They all relate to the design question of how best to carve things up into reasonably discrete pieces. The world of software is all thought stuff. There are few external constraints to shape your designs.

Systems designers look at three concepts when they are evaluating design choices about ways to carve a big system into more manageable pieces:

  • information hiding
  • coupling
  • cohesion

Information hiding is the systems design equivalent of “need to know.” How do you keep what you reveal about a module to a minimum? Put another way, what secrets are useful to keep.

Coupling and cohesion are complementary concepts. Cohesion is a measure of how closely the internal details of a module fit together. Do we have a team where everyone knows their role and responsibilities or do we have a random collection of people moving in the same general direction.

Coupling measures the degree of connectivity between modules. Cars traveling the same highway are more loosely coupled than the cars making up a commuter train.

If you’re interested in digging deeper, I’ve added pointers to some of the underlying literature where these notions were worked out. Think of it as a bit of information hiding on my part. If you’re comfortable with this level of explanation, you’re done. If not, you have the path to where to go next.

Once you have a clean mental model of a stack of modules formed by applying notions of information hiding, coupling, and cohesion you have a strategy to cope with complexity with less risk of finding yourself overwhelmed. If you can get a reasonable answer to your question at the layer you see, then you’re done. If not, you work your way down to the next layer. There are few questions that will require you to dig through multiple layers to find an answer. There are fewer still that require you to keep every layer in the stack in mind to understand.

Next time we’ll see how we might translate this strategy from technology to organizations.

Pointers to background work.

Nygren, Natalie. n.d. “Missing in Action: Information Hiding.” Steve McConnell. Accessed March 7, 2020. .

Parnas, D L. 1972. “On the Criteria To Be Used in Decomposing Systems into Modules.” Communications of the ACM 15 (12): 6.

Stevens, W P, G J Myers, and L L Constantine. 1974. “Structured Design.” IBM Systems Journal 13 (2).

From Business Case to Enlistment Pitch

I’m a fan of case studies–both as a teaching tool and a research tool. They’re often disparaged. And caricatured. I certainly had my own reservations when I first encountered them. Why couldn’t somebody just lay out the problem and get on with solving it? What was the point of all the arguments and background and history and politics?

As I’ve written about before, I was eventually invited into the process and became a case writer. Now I was inside the mess and searching for the threads I could weave into something coherent. What had seemed unnecessarily complex as a student was a deliberately crafted simplification of the actual situation.

There’s an old maxim that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. Writing stories about it is a close second.

In organizational settings becoming a competent performer is a process of learning the important stories. In most organizations that was largely an oral tradition. It was also an oral tradition that largely took care of itself. Most of us could sit back and gather round the watercolor while older and wiser heads clued us in to what was important and what was passing fancy.

That’s not so true anymore. Organizational and environmental change continues to accelerate. The people who might have the perspective to recognize and craft the relevant stories may already be gone or at the tail end of shortening tenures. What was once an organic outgrowth of routine organizational activity now has to be recast as an intentional and designed practice.

I think it has also become a more democratic and decentralized practice. In effect, we must all become case writers about our organizational environments. Resources and power flow to those who can weave the most compelling stories.

It can be tempting to interpret this as an indicator of organizational decay. A better view is that the most coherent stories warrant the organization’s resources. Learning to craft stories that are the right balance of threat and opportunity, tradition and innovation, and process and people becomes the new form of a compelling business case. The business case evolves from being a recitation of facts and figures to a story that enlists the right team of rivals.

Keep it simple is still an excellent strategy

My fascination with the space between technology and organization is something that grew slowly. When I went back to school to get an MBA, I fell into the group that understood the quantitative and structured material. I had spent the previous years designing and writing programs to count things up and calculate answers. Half the curriculum made sense.

The other half–about markets and organizations and people–often bordered on mystifying. But mysterious can also be enticing. The mystery eventually brought me back to school for the third time. I still wanted to understand how to take advantage of technology but the answers were buried in the intricacies of humans in organizations.

One of the things you learn dealing with technology is that technology does only and exactly what it’s told to do. When technology behaves in unexpected ways, then there’s a mistake in your programming. You have to examine what’s going on around you as you look for clues and never forget that you are also a key part of environment your are exploring.

This is an interesting perspective to bring over to the task of understanding organizations. While you’re engaged in deepening your grasp on how organizations work in the abstract, you are also embedded in a complex organization environment.

While you are trying to acquire the tools and concepts to make sense of structure and power and leadership, you are simultaneously engaged in a live-fire exercise with the institution you are a tiny piece of.

I recall a conversation with one of my thesis advisors about a fairly nasty tenure fight that was going on in her department. Rather than get sucked into a Machiavellian swirl of intrigue, her option was to be very clear and explicit on her plans and objectives and then do exactly what she said.

Simple and classic advice.

One of the things you learn with technology is to look for simplicity. There’s plenty of sources of complexity. Your job is to not add to the problem. Combine technology and organization and you’re now in the realm of combinatorial complexity. Don’t make things worse by trying to be clever. Be predictable.

From old expertise to new expertise

When my family moved back to St. Louis in 1964, our family of seven kids was reunited with another 24 first cousins. The 31 of us were spread across four families and separated by only a few miles. We saw a good bit of each other over the years. My uncles were bricklayers and electricians. My aunts had been nurses before they became mothers and housewives. Family and church and community were core.

Not only am I going to the top Catholic school in the city, I am planning on going to college and am about to leave for Princeton, a school so fancy and rarified that we all knew of it. My cousins were mystified that I would pursue such an exotic path. Why go to college at all when you could get a good job now? If you insisted on continuing with school, why not go to St. Louis University? It was a good Jesuit school and then you could become a teacher and get on with the important work of raising a family.

Maybe theirs was the better plan.

I stayed with the student route. That strategy was about doing well and going deep. Each lesson completed led to another of more subtlety and complexity. There’s a logic to this path just as there’s a logic to the path my cousins were on. But that logic is implicit. Whatever path you are on, there is an assumption that you’re absorbed the essential features of the path by osmosis from the environment you grew up in.

My environment contained nothing to osmose. I had no role models to look to, other than what I could glean from my teachers. They knew little of my background. All they could see was that I did well within the walls of their disciplines. My parents knew little of what went on inside my classes. My grades were just fine; no problems meant no need to intervene.

The structure of schools and education was organized into silos–it generally still is. Everyone stayed in their lane. Progress was a function of racing ahead as far and as fast within a given lane as possible. But the notion of staying in your lane was largely an implicit assumption. You knew that was what to do because you had already absorbed it from those who had gone before you.

I didn’t know that.

I didn’t know that the game was to crank through the syllabus and only the syllabus. I didn’t know that exploring connections and linkages between and across courses and disciplines was an activity reserved to designated specialists. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to pick up books that weren’t on the syllabus and wonder what they had to say about what you were learning elsewhere.

Doing these things upsets the power balance. You aren’t supposed to peek behind the curtain to see how the show is put together. You aren’t supposed to recognize that the curtain is even there.

All of those restrictions on what you are supposed to do make sense in a stable world. If the road is straight and clear, then staying in your lane is the fastest way to get to your destination.

We don’t live in that universe anymore. Deep expertise and specialization lose their power if you have to start building new lanes and new roads. If you’ve got power in the current environment, this kind of change is a potentially existential threat. The specifics of your expertise and specialization have been challenged and potentially undermined. Survival now depends on how readily your old expertise lets you build the expertise you need now. We all have to learn to look behind the curtain and build a new base.

Refuse to choose sides

After church yesterday, I had a quick conversation with a relatively new parishioner. I had learned that Ben was from St. Louis, as was I. This was a perfect opening to ask the first question that always gets posed whenever two St. Louisans meet: “Where did you go to school?”

In St. Louis, this is actually a question about what high school you attended. The answer is meant to pigeonhole anyone precisely on a clutch of dimensions – religious, socio-economic, political, cultural. I got the one answer from Ben that I would never have expected. We had both graduated from Priory. We are separated by enough years, that his classmates were the children of my classmates.

The answer was unexpected because Priory is a Catholic, Benedictine, school and we were in an Episcopal Church. First pigeonhole broken.

I’ve been thinking about pigeonholes and sides. And the experiences from my middle school/high school years bounce off that quintessential St. Louis question in odd ways. The question is usually pretty reliable because St. Louis is a pretty reliably stratified environment. If you grew up in the environment, you knew where you fit. By the time you reached Priory at age 11, you knew where you belonged.

I was dropped into this environment as an outlier. We had only just moved to St. Louis and I had no previous connections or pigeonholes that mattered. I lived a fair distance from the school which complicated matters further. My classmates didn’t know where to pigeonhole me either. But I had to be categorized and sorted if I wasn’t to disrupt the natural order of things.

I grasp the fundamentally tribal nature of humans. I’ve spent a good portion of my professional existence dealing with it. But back then I was simply a piece on the board as others were choosing up sides in a game I was only dimly aware of.

I was in an environment where I had strengths that qualified me for multiple roles. I was bright. I was decently athletic. I was quick witted and fast tongued. I was valuable, albeit naively so, to multiple sides. Gradually, I learned to move between sides. What I discovered was how committed people were to fitting smoothly into a primary pigeonhole.

That commitment to fitting in one category often blinds us to the degree of commonality that actually exists between categories. We invent new language to emphasize differences and distinctions. The path to fame in many settings starts with inventing new terms for old ideas. It’s a temptation that is hard to ignore. There’s less reward for revealing shared concepts hiding behind language invented to sharpen differences. There’s deep wisdom hiding in the tagline to the movie WarGames; “the only winning move is not to play.”

Crossing the between: building more human organization in a digital world

“But, you’re not an asshole!?”

A client I was working with had just discovered that I have a Harvard MBA.

More recently, I’ve taken over a course from a colleague and I’m starting with his slides so that I can focus on delivering the material and not get bogged down in the details of course design. He had an opening slide with his academic credentials and I copied in mine. It’s causing the annoying problems I could have predicted.

I don’t hide my background but I’ve become guarded about what and when I reveal facts about myself. That guardedness causes its own set of problems.

I used to think the explanation was about belonging; about being on the inside or on the outside. I got into Princeton and Harvard because I did well on tests and in classrooms but I came from a different world. Big family, Midwest roots, Catholic boy’s school, technologically adept, socially awkward; not quite Eliza Doolittle but not a bad approximation.

Skip ahead several decades and the rough edges have become reasonably polished.

Belonging isn’t the right way to think about it.

It’s about being between; of sitting within the overlap of a Venn diagram and working to make the shared space bigger. Not just for me but for everyone. Making the between bigger is about building bridges, creating shared language, and committing to learning about the other circles in the diagram.

The primary circles that draw my interest are organizations where humans band together to pursue human goals and technology where tools amplify human capacities. I believe that there is an enormous amount of overlap to be found there. The counter-belief feels more like warring camps in trenches with a shell-pocked no-man’s land in between.

I know from personal experience that the overlap is real. What I intend to explore over the next several weeks is what it might take to traverse the between safely.

Knowledge work and stable intermediate structures

There’s a story of the two watchmakers that Herbert Simon tells in The Sciences of the Artificial to illustrate the relevance of intermediate structure and hierarchy. Here’s the story

There once were two watchmakers, named Hora and Tempus, who made very fine watches. The phones in their workshops rang frequently and new customers were constantly calling them. However, Hora prospered while Tempus became poorer and poorer. In the end, Tempus lost his shop. What was the reason behind this?

The watches consisted of about 1000 parts each. The watches that Tempus made were designed such that, when he had to put down a partly assembled watch, it immediately fell into pieces and had to be reassembled from the basic elements. Hora had designed his watches so that he could put together sub-assemblies of about ten components each, and each sub-assembly could be put down without falling apart. Ten of these subassemblies could be put together to make a larger sub-assembly, and ten of the larger sub-assemblies constituted the whole watch

Simon uses the story to illustrate why structure and hierarchy emerge in complex systems. Or why good designers build  intermediate structure into their systems.

One interesting aspect of this fable is that Simon talks of two levels of intermediate structure. This suggests that there are criteria to invoke when making design choices about the size and complexity of intermediate structures.

I’ve been thinking about intermediate structure lately in the context of how to be more effective in doing knowledge work. I’ve touched on working papers recently and I wanted to revisit the topic from the perspective of stability and intermediate structures.

I’ve been blogging for a long time and writing at multiple lengths–blog posts, teaching cases, articles, books. I use or have used all sorts of tools in the process

  • mindmaps (both by hand and by software),
  • outlines (again, both by hand and by software)
  • word processors
  • text editors
  • bibliographic/reference management software
  • wiki software
  • specialized note taking tools (Evernote, nvAlt, etc.)

The space between glimmer of an idea and finished product is what draws my attention now. Although I’ve been nibbling around the ideas of working papers, most of what I’ve discovered and examined has talked about writing process. Freewriting, shitty first drafts, mindmapping techniques. What’s starting to come into view is the structure side of the question.

For the longest time, I’ve worked and thought in terms of deliverables and working backwards from some vision of an end product. That works well enough for blog posts and most client reports. At the longer scales of a book, on the other hand, working backwards breaks down. You know that the outlines and mindmaps are  necessary but they morph as the process unfolds and as your understanding of the deliverable evolves.

The notion of a permanent and evolving collection of notes and treating those notes as “first class objects” that should be designed to stand on their own is a new to me. When I started blogging the idea of a commonplace book was one idea for an organizing container for developing ideas and lines of thinking. Jerry Weinberg’s Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method is an approach that I’ve worked to understand and adopt. I’ve certainly recommended it to many colleagues. More recently, Sonke Ahrens’s How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing,  Learning and Thinking drew me into the subculture of Zettelkasten.

All of these new ideas still focused mostly on process advice. They fell short on offering insight into the structure of the data and information that you created through the processes. They slide past the data half of the equation and I’m only know coming to see how that has been holding me back.

A collection of permanent notes is a handy thing to have around. But, without attention to intervening stable structures we are still fighting the problem of building a 1,000 piece watch in a single step.

There are some hints scattered in what I’ve found so far. The Zettelkasten sub-culture references the notion of special forms of structure notes, for example. In my own work. I’ve started to recognize the emergence of recurring themes and am trying to develop techniques to capture and track them.

I feel I am at the stage of recognizing that there’s a problem to be addressed. I can see the gap between a collection of random notes and the organized flow of a final deliverable. Now I’m looking to design or discover stable structures that can serve as waypoints where I can pause before I have worked out what the final deliverables might be. Is this a problem that others have also encountered? Are there concepts and structures I can learn and adapt?

What will the new year bring?

The time between semesters has turned into a bit more of a hiatus than I would have predicted. I’ve been doing a good bit of writing for myself but not in a way that unpacks easily into posts worth sharing more widely.

I’ve always been in the school of “how do I know what I think until I see what I say.” Often, when I say it for the first time, I’m still not sure I know what I’m thinking. I try to avoid inflicting those moments on everyone else.

There’s a quote that’s been on my mind lately. It comes from an interesting novel by Cory Doctorow called Homeland. In it, one of the characters observes:

Start at the beginning,” he said. “Move one step in the direction of your goal. Remember that you can change direction to maneuver around obstacles. You don’t need a plan, you need a vector.

When we get to the end of a journey, it’s always tempting to revise the story to make the journey seem more straightforward than it ever actually is. We’ll pretend that we knew where we were going all along; the goal was clear and the plan was good.

Doctorow’s formulation is more modest. A vector is movement and a direction. Movement without direction may be walking in circles or worse. Direction without movement is no more than gazing at some vague and hazy shadow on the horizon.

What I find intriguing about the notion of a vector is how it directs my focus away from that haze on the horizon to the terrain in front of me.It’s the terrain that throws up the obstacles that call for maneuvering.

The terrain that holds my attention is the space where technology innovation and organizational inertia interact. It’s tempting—and certainly simpler—to pretend that you can limit your focus to one or the other. But that requires lying to yourself about the world as it is. Never a wise approach. Nor an approach I intend to adopt.