Sunday, September 23, 2012

Enough is enough!; collaboration; Pareto

I am gradually learning when enough is enough.  I hadn't had much experience working in open collaborative ways like I am now... I've had a long way to come - and still a long way to go.  This post might be a bit abstract, and it might seem convoluted.  But the number of times I'm surprised at people's impractical approach to work and time tells me it's worth writing.

By 'enough is enough', I don't mean that your widget is sufficiently polished to be placed on the mantle - that you should stop and ship.  I mean that you have done enough to need to change tack - and in particular, to seek advice, feedback, or collaborative input.

There's a fallacy in our philosophy of work.  We assume that things we're doing take a certain number of hours, and that we need to efficiently stack these up to get them done, and thus be successful, useful, or win. Simple, right?  Work is a set of ingredients (otherwise known as tasks) that you churn through as efficiently as possible?  I know we all know that's not quite right - but too many times when I talk to people about 'work', it's obvious that that's the philosophy they bring to it.  As obvious as it can be to me when I hear it, I think I'm not much different.

Look at the way we approach time billing.  We don't just use it - we fetishise it.  If your work is complicated, six minute increments of time spent aren't a good measure of how you've created value - the real value of why you're working in the first place.  It's crazy!  But so many places seem to think the few minutes around the edges are worth worrying about.

A law of diminishing returns applies to complicated work.  In fact, most work follows a sort of s-curve - we muddle around at the beginning trying to work out which way is up, get progressively more productive, but then find this rate eventually diminishes - and if we persist long enough will probably flatten out to being close enough to useless.  Perfectionism doesn't pay.  This pattern applies in a range of different contexts... Work on a task over the course of an hour, for example, and your brain will begin to tire, your work become less useful.  In defiance - or perhaps ignorance - of our own minds and bodies, our philosophy of work compels us to soldier on to our next designated break.  The same curve seems to apply to just about anything where you can plot work done against time, and where it's possible to continue working in relative isolation from significant change.

I'm learning to see how this curve is a result of the limits of my own individual experience and ability.  I might be planning planning a certain sort of event I'm not experienced with.  I could sketch something up, but knowing the limits of my experience, I will near the limits of my capacity very quickly.  I can spend a lot of time on it, perhaps make it marginally better, without getting much further than the first half hour's outline. What I can do, once I've realised I'm treading water, is raise it in discussion with a couple of others and get second and third opinions about what the event should look like.  Things are a bit messy as we all familiarise ourselves with what's going on and what's needed, but in relatively short time we have some great ideas.  We're all a little wiser, and we have together made a leap of progress on what I may have struggled on for hours.  I will probably go away and work on it myself, but I've had the limitations of my original thoughts disrupted and built up.  Sitting back down to start the work, I have a trajectory that will see me twice as better off, in a tenth of the time.

This phenomenon is reminiscent of the Pareto principle.  It reminds us that the productivity of our efforts is not even, and that we can achieve more by focusing on our most fruitful areas, rather than stressing over crumbs.  Pareto can be applied in lots of ways, but in this case it states that 80 percent of what you do comes from 20 percent of your time working on it. It might be a rough rule of thumb, but it's true enough to be worth applying - it's a consequence of distribution mathematics that apply in all sorts of unexpected situations. One thing to note with the principle is that you can't cheat it - you can't do a good bit of work, decide that's obviously your 80 percent for the day, and call it quits knowing you're not going to achieve much more.  There's a fair chance that some of your 'good 80 percent' will come amongst whatever you continue with that day.  In a general context, the one big thing I take away from the Pareto principle is that it doesn't pay to stress about small changes in inputs - in particular, your time and effort.  Not all inputs are equal, and you're much better off being relaxed, positive, and making sure you do good work than trying to squeeze in more work around the edges - focusing on doing good work keeps your exceptional 20 percent of inputs being put to good use.  Stressing about the time around the edges deteriorates your work overall, for the sake of squeezing out a few more unproductive moments.

You can't cheat the Pareto principle - but you can take advantage of it.  Returning to the 'value curves' described above - the 'good 80 percent' of value comes in the period in the middle of the curve, the steepest part.  When you've passed the point of diminishing returns, you can continue to work on that last 20 percent - or you can alter your approach, change the shape of the curve altogether, and increase your chances of finding an even greater '80 percent' than you were looking at before.

Yes, when you reset, you lose the trajectory that you were on - and if your ideal is to get near limit of the path you were on before, then this is probably an unsavoury and unnecessary risk.  If you have too little time available, then it just doesn't make sense to be spicing things up.  But if you do, you're dooming yourself to a substandard result - a lot of mediocrity is because we set our expectations too low, too early, based on the place we can see ourselves approaching.  Not based on the potential we have, if we open ourselves to other options.

In fact, I think with this post, I've past the point of diminishing returns.  I could rabbit on for hours, but whatever I say beyond this point will be getting more and more tedious... I need to give it up for now and come back to it when I get the chance to disrupt my trajectory.

The moral of the story is that when you're working on something, you will normally get to a stage where it's worthwhile changing your approach - whether that means a tea break, or phoning a friend.  Our philosophy of 'work' undermines our ability to make this call.  Not surprisingly, it is not easy learning to recognise our behaviour and act on it.

No comments:

Post a Comment