Buying Time

Review: Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life

I think my father made decent money, although I don’t have any concrete numbers. But, if you have seven children to feed, clothe, and educate stretching every dollar is sound practice. My mother did this with sometimes frightening skill. She would drive out of her way to save a few pennies per gallon on gasoline or milk, both of which we consumed in prodigious quantities. Frugal was a badge of honor. Mom lived “time is money” more than any business school professor I ever met. It was a source of friction between us from time to time.

Ashley Whillans is a Harvard Business School professor whose research makes the case that we have that mantra inverted; “money is time.” But, unlike a mathematical inversion, the direction you adopt makes a difference. Whillans research investigates the trouble we get into by accepting the conventional wisdom. That leads to solid advice on how to shift your perspective to prioritizing time over money in spite of the pressures to do the opposite. Appropriately enough, Whillans manages to compress all of the argument and advice into a compact package respectful of and worth your time. 

Start with a Bare Stage not a Blank Page

It was about 2am, the stage was bare, and the house was dark. Tech rehearsal had wrapped at midnight. There were four of us still in the theater–Producer, Technical Director, Lighting Designer, and Stage Manager. We were setting the lighting levels for each of the hundred odd lighting cues we would execute for each performance. 

Thos and Chaz–TD and Lighting Designer–were seated in the house about fifteen rows back. Steve and I were off stage left manning the dimmer switches that controlled the lighting instruments. Chaz shouts out, “can one of you go on stage? I need to see how this looks on skin.” Steve promptly takes center stage and moons Thos and Chaz. “Excellent! Jim, take dimmer 24 up two points”

Two in the morning is easier to face with collaborators. What makes a blank page so intimidating is that you feel alone. 

A bare stage promises a crowd. Even a solo performance presumes an audience. And a performance hints at a production crew lurking somewhere.

A blank page is a single entry point to creation. From a bare stage you can move in multiple directions. And you don’t have to move alone. 

Start there.

Simple Questions that aren’t so Simple

“Where did you go to school?”

It’s an innocuous cocktail party question that pops up fairly early. You would think that the answers would be simple. Not necessarily.

In St.Louis, where I grew up, this is actually a question about where you went to high school, not university. The answer slots you pretty precisely along political, religious, and socio-economic dimensions. 

Elsewhere in the U.S. this is, in fact, a question about your university affiliation. For most people, in most situations, the answers are simple; “Michigan”, “MIT”, “Notre Dame.” There are two seemingly evasive answers that I am qualified to and sometimes do use; “in New Jersey” and “in Boston.” These are code phrases for “Princeton” and “Harvard.”

Why dodge a direct answer? Because a straight answer might not provoke a straight reaction. The explicit conversation isn’t always the most relevant conversation underway. What appears to be a simple inquiry and a simple, factual, response may be heavily freighted with hidden assumptions and expectations. 

This layering of conversations is present in most settings. My history may make me a bit more attuned to that. 

Which turns out to be of increasing importance and relevance in knowledge intensive settings. Organizations want to pretend that they are simple, straightforward, places. While I am open to a debate about whether that might once have been true, I wouldn’t operate on any of those assumptions today. 

The complexity is there. You can ignore it or you can accept it and factor it in.

Making Room for Change

Image by Anita Smith from Pixabay

My undergraduate years were dominated by the theater. Most of my free time and a substantial percentage of what should have been class time was spent working on some aspect of the Princeton Triangle Club. By the time I graduated, I had done most every job backstage that existed and been elected an officer of the Club.

Shortly after I graduated, I was elected a Trustee of the Club. Members of Triangle that you are likely to have heard of include Jimmy Stewart, Jose Ferrer, Josh Logan, and Brooke Shields. My four years flowed into an additional ten as a Trustee.

That continuity gave me some perspective about organizations that I might not have gotten otherwise. This perspective had to do with history, tradition, and time horizons. At that time the club was about 90 years old. We had lots of history and history implies traditions. But I discovered a curious thing about traditions. For most members of the club, history was whatever happened during their four years.

There was no way to differentiate between a tradition stretching back decades and an accidental string of events covering your undergraduate tenure. I was frequently bemused and amused by how often I heard undergraduates tell me “this is the ways it’s always been done” about something first done three years earlier.

I suspect this had a lot to do with my focusing on the interplay between innovation and organizational change. The part of me fascinated by technology seeks out change. What new way have we dreamed up to make some piece of technology obsolete? Who needs a bank teller when we have an ATM? Why bother with cash when you have Venmo?

The Triangle Trustee part of me that sees a tradition crystallized out of a short span of experience is sympathetic about those who’ve just figured out how to swipe their credit card and are tripped up by the new card with a chip instead of a magnetic stripe. Doubly confused, perhaps, when the new card has both a stripe and a chip.

In a sense, we’re all stuck as undergraduates. Whatever we encounter is always “the way it’s always been done” as far as we can tell. It takes time and deliberate effort to separate the threads of useful tradition and accidental stability.

Sleep Deprivation is a Bad Management Strategy

It was shortly after midnight. The cast was seated or sprawled in the aisles in the house. I was onstage, clipboard in hand, with the Director, Choreographer, Band Leader, and Tech Director. We had just completed Tech Rehearsal. We opened in four days. We were about to do “Notes”, where the Director and others would walk through all of the things that needed fixing or adjusting. As Production Stage Manager, I was poised to capture all of those to dos on my clipboard. 

Milt Lyons, the Director, had been working with the Triangle Club since 1955, two years after I was born. Scarcely his first rodeo. 

We had worked together before, but I was unprepared for his very first note.

He deputized two of the cast to escort me to my dorm and put me to bed. I turned my clipboard over to my assistant and left with Milt’s deputies. Fifteen hours of sleep later I was back on stage. A bit of quick arithmetic indicated that I had been working on three hours of sleep a night for the preceding week. Nor had any of my professors in any of my classes seen me that week. 

This intervention didn’t lead to any sudden epiphany; I continued to make poor choices about how I managed my time and energy. But it did plant an important seed. A seed that did take root and eventually led to more respect for balance in creative work. We talk about knowledge work in abstract, cerebral, terms. Bodies are simply transport systems for moving brains from place to place. 

When circumstances tempt me to pretend that my brain operates in splendid isolation. I remember that moment. There’s Milt announcing that the health of an entire production needed one foolish young stage manager to go get some sleep.

Sharing a Pint

Photo by Marcus Herzberg from Pexels

My first job out of college was with the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen & Co. (which has since morphed into Accenture). Andersen invested heavily in training their staff and went so far as to buy their own college campus west of Chicago to house staff while attending classes. I spent many a day there as student and faculty.

Andersen may have been the only professional services firm to have its own liquor license. The training center was in the middle of nowhere and the partners deemed it smarter to set up a bar on campus rather than set hordes of recent college graduates loose after class. Days were spent learning the practicalities of auditing or computer programming. Evenings were devoted to knitting people into the culture.

I don’t know that that was a design criteria for the facility. It was certainly a result. After classes, students mixed with faculty, junior staff with partners. Over beers, the stories of successes and failures were told. Connections were made face-to-face that made later conference calls more effective. We were all turned into “Androids” and pleased with the result.

Two decades later, I’m part of a small core group creating a new consulting firm. There are about 25 of us at the start, refugees from Accenture, McKinsey, and elsewhere. But we aspire to much; our goal is to grow and compete with the organizations we had left. Six years later we have more than a thousand professionals across the U.S. and a foothold in the E.U.

We’ve all seen what investments in training and a strong culture can do. But we don’t have a college campus handy. We’re operating out of offices sublet from our lawyers. Our consultants, when they’re not at a client site, work from wherever home might be. Our only rule is that consultants must live near an airport large enough that they can reach client sites on Monday mornings.

One of the core mechanisms we used to create and reinforce a culture of our own was to convene All Hands Meetings once a month. Everyone came to Chicago. We did training and shared updates on the business.

It took some fighting with our CEO, but we designed the agendas with lots of time between sessions. And partners picked up the bar tabs in the evenings.

We did one more thing to jumpstart creating a culture out of nothing. We sought out “signature stories” of client incidents and events that represented the culture we sought. Some we shared in the formal agenda. Some we dropped into hallway conversations. Some we saved for the bar.

Where’s the Locus of Control?

Circular error probable - percentageOrganizations aspire to immortality. Few achieve it, but the mindset persists. I was thinking about this in the context of the various organizations I’ve worked for over the years. Many of them no longer exist; names changed, organizations shut down, organizations absorbed into other organizations. The life cycle of modern organizations is shortening.

One of the driving forces that took me out of the workforce and back to school for the third time was seeking to reconcile the rationality of technology and the irrationality of behavior in organizations. I needed to step away from the noise to see if there were patterns I could discern.

Midway through the process, I recall a conversation with my advisor. Had I revised my opinions about the irrationality of organizations? 

Herb Simon was a Nobel-prize winning economist who had explored this very question and had come up with perspectives that helped. Here’s what Simon argued. Organizations and the decision makers within them want to be rational but there are limits on their capabilities. Rationality is bounded by various limits on our capacity to process and make sense out of information. 

The mythology of business and economics is that decision makers seek optimal solutions. Business language is littered with superlatives; “best”, “fastest”, “cheapest”, “newest”. Mostly harmless in advertising and marketing circles where we presume a certain amount of puffery. Not so harmless in other settings. Simon’s argument was that decision makers “satisfice”; they make a good enough decision with the time and data available. You don’t give up on the goal of optimal choices. You do accept that they are a theoretical ideal, not, generally, an achievable goal.

This matters for knowledge workers because the mythology remains pervasive. Knowledge work feeds into decisions. Those doing the work recognize the limitations of their analyses that leave us short of ideal answers. Those making the decisions are too often predisposed to ignore those limits. It can take courage to be vocal about what you don’t and can’t know. 

Beneath the Magic

Despite how long ago it was, my university education was still an expensive proposition. Part of my financial aid package was an on campus job. In my freshman year, that job was working as a janitor in my dorm. Dealing with the bathrooms on Sunday mornings was not a pleasant experience. 

My second year, I moved on to much better pastures, working as part of the tech crew at McCarter Theatre, just off the southwest corner of the Princeton campus. I worked as a stage hand, carpenter, and electrician. 

McCarter is a Broadway-scale theater built in 1930 to house the Princeton Triangle Club’s operations. It stages multiple productions and concerts throughout the year. I built sets, hung lights, loaded touring shows in and out, ran follow spots, and pretty much anything else associated with the nuts and bolts of making the magic happen. A very blue-collar education taking place in parallel with the classical liberal arts education happening across the street on campus. There, I was studying Shakespeare alongside Regression Analysis.

This juxtaposition of manual and cerebral, art and engineering, practice and theory shaped my perspectives. Perspectives plural being the primary lesson. Classrooms have the luxury of taking narrow and precise focus on a question. A working theater is a laboratory for balancing and mixing competing claims and priorities to bring about moments of magic.

My first question after experiencing one of those moments is “what did it take to make that happen?” Seeking those answers enhances the experience. Finding answers leads to creating better experiences the next time.

Like may lenses ground in experience, I tend to look through them without noticing what they sharpen and what they distort. It’s worth taking a look at this particular lens as it applies to gaining a better understanding of doing knowledge work more effectively.

I find it useful to break this analogy between the players and the production.

The playwright and the audience bracket the collection of roles that contribute to creating an experience. Depending on the complexity of the piece, the number of participants in the chain can become quite long; 

  • producer 
  • director 
  • designers of multiple stripes (sets, lighting, sound)
  • performers (actors, dancers, musicians)
  • builders (carpenters, tailors/seamstresses. painters, electricians)
  • stage crew (grips, props managers, electricians, audio technicians)
  • front of house (box office, ushers)
  • marketers
  • managers (stage managers, crew chiefs, tech directors, business managers)

If nothing else, this is a reminder of how much collaboration goes into producing a designed experience.

There’s an equally complex mix of artifacts that can surround a piece of work. 

There is the script itself. But scripts do not spring forth from the brow of Athena or anyone else. Nor is a bare script enough if our goal is to create an effect or response from an audience; something too often overlooked based on the accumulation of dust gathering on ignored documents piled on shelves. 

Getting to a script is a journey of notes, outlines, drafts, notes, and revisions. Transforming a script into a production spawns multiple streams of subsequent artifacts. There are design artifacts, management schedules, calendars, plans, budgets, and more. These trigger the creation of still more artifacts; sets, costumes, props, promotional items, and more.

The risk of any analogy is to push it too far. If I step back from the precipice there are core elements that I keep in mind as I turn this lens on knowledge work. First, the goal is to elicit a response from an audience. The work doesn’t exist for itself, it exists for what it accomplishes. Second, you’re not alone; potential collaborators are everywhere, in multiple forms.

Finally, when the curtain goes up, what you get is what you see. There’s no point in painting the back of a set that can’t be seen by the audience. If the set collapses in the middle of the first act, however, you’ve got a problem. 

Make Your Own Space

Have you learned to have a healthy suspicion about “the way things are supposed to be”?

While I was in elementary and high school, my mother encouraged a certain fluidity about rules and regulations. She would happily grant me periodic “mental health days” if I thought a break was in order.

While I was in college, there was a lovely home about a ten-minute walk from campus. It belonged to the parents of a sometimes girlfriend; always and still a friend, occasionally something closer. I adopted them as a set of spare parents, more readily available than my own a thousand miles away. Over the years, I would take refuge there from time to time. No questions, no expectations, always welcome. Without models to guide us, we worked out arrangements fit to whatever moment we were in. 

This is on my mind as I try to work something out. I’ve noticed how often the advice I encounter about life and work has a certain implicit message of “everything you’ve been doing is wrong, here’s the right answer.” Whatever method or practice or tool or system is being pitched, the framing is that this is the solution to your problem. 

What’s missing from all of this advice is that your job is not to select from among the hypothetical solutions on offer. Your first task is to ignore the canned solutions and their canned definitions of the problem and work out your own definition of the problem. 

If it’s helpful, you are free to examine the solutions on offer, but what you want to do with those purported solutions is explore the underlying model of the problem they were built to solve. That can serve as additional input as you work to better define your problem. 

The key here is that knowledge work doesn’t fit into standardized models. How you solve a problem differs from how I attack the same problem. This is the fundamental promise of knowledge work. It is a search for the unique answer to the unique question at hand. If there were an off-the-rack answer, then we’re talking about standard operating procedures not knowledge work. 

There is an essential design component at the outset of any knowledge work effort. What features of the problem are salient? What tools and techniques are already at hand? Can you reorganize and redeploy the existing tools? Do you need to add in a new tool or technique (and figure out how to use it effectively in this context)?

There’s a hypothesis coming into focus for me here around the notion that any knowledge work effort begins with a design step. Analogies about work tend to be anchored around factories. The problem is that you design a factory once and run the same things through it over and over. 

I’ve spent considerable time in factories but I’ve spent more time in a place that provides a better analogy for knowledge work–the theater. No two productions of _Hamlet_ are ever the same; even with a known script the goal is to create something new and possibly unique.

Staging a production is a much more complex creative task. You start with an empty stage and you transform it into a magical space. That transformation may start with a script but it opens up to encompass sets, lights, sound, movement and more. Designing for knowledge work needs to be similarly expansive. It will require multiple perspectives and, often, multiple collaborators. 

Let’s see where this might take us.

Taking the Stage

LecternI got involved in theater early on in my high school days. I was quite happy working backstage in various capacities. There was a production that a friend, Kathy, persuaded me to audition for with her. It was terrifying, a disaster softened only by being mercifully brief. Clearly, I was not cut out for the stage; I wasn’t brave enough.

My teachers had another agenda. They expected me to do readings at the lectern during Daily Mass. That led to being voluntold to deliver a brief talk on the first anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. That led to a Science Fair project that required me to present my work to judges multiple times as I gradually worked my way up through the statewide competition and eventually a trip to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Through all of this I was absorbing lessons about knowledge work, although I didn’t have that vocabulary at the time. First, public speaking isn’t about courage so much as it’s an exercise in rehearsal, repetition, and practice. Second, curiosity is an excellent driver of energy that can be channeled into sharing what you’re learning. Third, it’s hard to make an impact without sharing.

Knowledge and knowledge work exists to be shared. It won’t share itself. If you want what you learn to make a difference, you have to take the stage.