Daily Archives: March 16, 2010

Your Calendar Reflects your Priorities or Lesson 10

On one of my first postings, Lessons from a CIA Manager, I listed 16 lessons I had more or less learned in almost 25 years as a manager there. (I think now we may be up to 18 actually.) Lesson 10 was: Your calendar reflects your priorities. You can talk about x or y issue being important to you, but if it never makes your calendar you’re lying to yourself and, worse, lying to others.

This is so simple and yet often overlooked. By now, almost all federal senior executives have had enough sensitivity training to know at least to talk a good game about issues such as diversity, employee engagement, work-life balance, etc. But it does you no good to tell employees that x, y, and z are priorities for you if you never can make the time to actually attend discussions on diversity, meet regularly with small groups of employees for straight talk, and deal with your own work-life balance issues. Remember that as a senior executive, your ACTIONS ALWAYS speak LOUDER than words. The individuals who work under your leadership pay careful attention to what you do.

I remember at some point at the Agency attending a diversity-related function and being thanked by the organizers for actually staying through the entire event. They marveled that “such a busy person” would have the time. Well, harumph! You can’t be very much of an executive manager if you can’t manage your schedule to do the things you say you care most about.

I also enjoyed blogging while at the Agency and found that to be a very effective way of getting my thoughts out to others. (It is amazing how muddy your message gets as it is translated through the layers of bureaucracy.) People would tell me they too would like to blog but they just couldn’t find the time and I would think, OK, communicating effectively with your employees has got to be one of your most important tasks and yet somehow you can’t carve out 30 minutes on your schedule. Somehow, I didn’t really find the time excuse to be that credible.

Finally one last trick about making yourself accessible as a senior manager. I am a slow walker. I like to ride the escalators–I find it pleasant. I learned from a management consultant–but I don’t remember who exactly–that the pace with which you walk the halls determines whether others find you accessible. People walking slowly are telling others, I have time for you, I can be interrupted. And so people will come up to you in the halls to talk, to tell you something you would not otherwise hear from them in a formal meeting. Fast workers send the exact opposite message.

So it’s not enough to  manage by walking around. You need to manage by walking around VERY SLOWLY.

(I googled the phrase “your calendar reflects your priorities” and hit upon several good pieces. Here’s one on whether your to do list reflects your passions. And another on whether your life reflects your moral compass.)

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Personalized Work

David Warlick is a North Carolina-based educator and consultant who keeps a blog, 2 cents worth. His most recent posting describes the transition education is making, as a result of the information, communications, and technology revolution, to personalized learning. As someone who believes work itself will be reconceptualized in the next decade or so, I found many parallels between education’s major transition points and where work is likely to go. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how we could ever take individuals who have learned through the process he describes and then shoe-horn them into jobs as they are currently designed.

His major points are that personalized education:

  • Will be fueled by questions,
  • Provoke conversations,
  • Be responsive, i.e. be interactive
  • Will learn from mistakes, and
  • Will lead to personal investment from the learner and contribute to his/her evolving identity

(I reordered Warlick’s points slightly and did just a little wordsmithing, but I think I’m true to his ideas.)

Personalized work follows along similar lines. What do I mean by personalized work? Most jobs today are still designed according to some archaic position description, this is certainly very common in the government environment. These descriptions are infrequently updated. (I remember at the CIA it was always a very bureaucratically fearful time when the professional job redescribers descended upon your office.) (This makes me think of another post that would be fun to work on: When Bureaucrats are Scared, but I digress.) But if you just think about it, doesn’t it seem nonsensical that in this day and age we would organize the work of our mission around position descriptions that can frequently, I think, be more than a decade old. But it’s not the vintage of the description that’s the real sin, it’s the fact that you could never find a single person who could perfectly perform all the tasks required. So because of the perceived need to order work in ways that the bureaucracy and pay system can best handle, we actually make inefficient use of people, our most important resource as we are often and unattractively reminded.

Is there another way to organize work? YES!! Innovative organizations are beginning to work with new designs that actually allow them to match tasks to the best-suited individual. And they use technology to mash the two up. Every manager needs to visit and become familiar with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. (I’ve made more than forty dollars there so far as a worker, enough to finance my MP3 purchases, but I digress.) At Mechanical Turk, large missions and jobs are being atomized into minute tasks, allowing individuals to self-select the tasks they are both good at and enjoy. What a concept!!!! I actually believe this approach could be applied to many tasks, including some missions of the federal government.

Another approach to personalizing work is to bring the aspects of game design into the work environment. It is an odd phenomenon that millions of individuals, many of whom have important positions in their analog lives, voluntarily and happily spend hundreds of hours a year playing computer games such as World of Warcraft. They solve complicated problems, collaborate and form trust relationships with people they’ve never physically met, and all for very little tangible reward. And yet some, when they come into work, mail it in. What is wrong with this picture? What is it about how work is designed that is demotivating, while game design engages individuals? Could it be factors such as immediate feedback, transparency, personalization? For more on this topic, check out recent books such as Total Engagement for eye-opening discussion on why games are not the opposite of work.

Anyway, this posting is already too long and there’s still much more to say and do on the topic. These changes are fueled by technology, but I don’t in any way consider myself a technology expert. I associate myself with David Warlick’s own description of himself: Technologists get excited by the light. I get excited by what we can shine that light on.