Pigs, Chickens and Human Beings

Only about 2.5% of the population can multitask but many more think they can and even more try. This is a source of grief and even physical danger, when people talk on cellular phones while driving, for example. Lack of focused attention is diminishing the quality of our decision making as a society.

I have to do a lot of my work at home because I cannot get time to concentrate at work. Some of the "interruptions" are important. Interacting with coworkers is the essence of work in the age of the knowledge worker. I have observed and research indicates that people who insist on "working" to the exclusion of interaction with co-workers are less productive. That time at the water cooler can be an essential time to exchange information and assess capabilities.

Much, however, is dumb. People react too quickly. Instead of thinking for themselves, they send emails, call or send instant messages. Pretty soon dozens are in on a decision that should have been made by one person. The benefit of collective knowledge rarely outweighs the inefficiency of collective thinking if nobody has come up with decent questions. Beyond that, if you count up the salary time you are paying for the dozens of kibitzers, you usually find that the total cost of making a poor decision would be less than the time spent trying to make a perfect one. That assumes that the collective decision is better, which it often is not.

I am making it my business to limit these kinds of things to the small extent that I can. Edmund Burke said "If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." I am adapting that saying to meetings and activities in general. "If it is not necessary to meet/consult/act, it is necessary not to meet/consult/act. We have way too many good things to do and cannot waste time on crap that seems urgent because lots of people clamoring, but is may not be important. The most important thing I can do is decide which things we are not going to do.

Sometimes this can be an easy decision. Some things are just clearly not worth doing. The only trouble here is just saying no. The harder choices involve things that are very important or very worthy but not our business, not within our skill set or beyond our control. Focus is important. Since we cannot do everything, we need to focus on those things that only we can do, that we can do better than others or things we need to do to survive. We need to reject other things. It is malpractice to get involved in too many things we cannot properly do. The most important thing around might be curing a deadly disease, but we are not qualified to act in this sphere, so it is stupid to get involved. We would add no value and probably get in the way. More is not always better.
One of the wisest human characteristics is restraint. We should not take as much as we can. Leave something on the table. We should be careful not to overextend too often. We should judge ourselves and others by what we really do, not by intentions, bold plans or promises.
There are times when our reach should exceed our grasp. People who never fail are people who haven't tried hard enough. But we need to focus our effort on what we do well and let others carry forward the other things. I have never met a successful person or heard about a successful organization that just played it safe and staying within the comfort zone. But I have also never heard of a successful person or organization that could not decide and stick to reasonable priorities.

The media and especially the Internet allow us to gain a superficial knowledge of lots of things. We think we understand more than we do. It has also created an immediacy that makes us think we should be interested in many things. We hear exhortations that we should be committed to lots of causes. This is not true. It is beyond our capacity. In the wise words of Clint Eastwood, "A man's gotta know his limitations."

We can be interested in lots of things, involved in some but we can commit only to a few. Remember the difference between being committed, involved and interested when you have your bacon and egg breakfast. You are interested; the chicken is involved; the pig is committed.

Most of the time we should play the role of the human, i.e. be interested. Sometimes we should play the chicken, i.e. be involved. We should avoid having our ass on the line, like the pig, unless we are really prepared.

Posted by Christine & John at April 24, 2012 7:24 PM
Comment #342705


I do wish there were some way to control the above type comments.

However, as to your point, I find I basically agree with you. Not only is using a cell phone while driving extremely dangerous, it often fails to allow a consensus to take place.

My husband receives tons of text messages during the day and night, and rarely can a decision be made without actually calling and talking on the phone, or better yet in person.

What is it that makes people believe multi-tasking is such an admirable talent?

Most people who believe they can multi-task, can’t, and won’t admit that they only manage to do part of the job - and that part is not done very well.
I know many people who seem to pride themselves on their ability to multi-task, however, after I finally manage to clean up their mistakes, and finish their projects, I find I get rather angry with them.
Multi-tasking is a farce in and of itself!

Posted by: Highlandangel1 at April 25, 2012 8:13 PM
Comment #342788


I try to get rid of those comments every morning, but yesterday I had an early appointment and forgot. Sorry.

I think the multitasking and connection will get worse and worse. I hate twitter, for example. But in my work I have to do “twitter seminars”.

Since was eligible to retire six years ago and hold a fairly high position, I am partially immune from some of the stress. Colleagues know that I may not answer my phone at night and I am constantly telling people NOT to do things like attend dumb meetings. My email policy is NOT to answer immediately. I let them age, like fine wine. Very often, after a short time the sender has figured out how to solve his own problem and/or the problem has been overtaken by events.

Re cellular and cars. I ride my bike to work. I have actually had people criticize that because I was out of touch for that time. I told them that they certainly didn’t need me that bad and if they did we were in serious trouble. There is no such thing as an indispensable person.

Most of the people I work with regularly now understand and tolerate my habits. I am trying to help others develop them. I never call my staff at home unless we both know we are working on a project together that needs it.

Anyway, I am rambling a bit, but I will add one more thing. I have carefully monitored results around me. I find that the non-constant contact people are more productive. I am not saying we should not use the tools. But we should think about them. I make fun of some people here with the “think don’t link” saying. But it is really true.

Posted by: C&J at April 26, 2012 5:48 AM
Comment #342796
Pretty soon dozens are in on a decision that should have been made by one person.

Very true, but I have observed that those who draw group attention to their issues are more likely to advance in the work world versus those who just solve the problem without the fan fare. At least that’s the view from too many years in government work. And yes, the pressue does need to be kept on government entities; there is too much mediocre and unaccountable management (see GSA) which really isn’t surprising since they are the ones that couldn’t solve their own problems at the working level.

Posted by: Schwamp at April 26, 2012 7:55 AM
Comment #342824


That is one of the reasons why many things cannot be given to government. The incentive system is such that those that crow the loudest and spend the most money are likely to get promoted over quieter money-savers.

Posted by: C&J at April 26, 2012 4:37 PM
Comment #342902

The basic critique I would make here is that the modern world presents us with all kinds of temptations towards bad behavior, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t manage the impulses and possibilities that come with them.

That also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take advantage of the positive possibilities that come with them.

Before the telephone, if you wanted to bother somebody about something, you had to do so in person. After it’s invention, you had to route a call through a telephone operator at a switchboard. This provided some sort of filter, which went away when phones started relying on electromechanical switches driven by the telephone numbers instead. Then they made it all electronic, so you could dial with a machine instead of a human.

As we’ve progressed, we’ve developed a system of private understandings, etiquette, and law to manage the challenges and concerns that the new technology brings up. There’s a reason telemarketers are not looked kindly upon in our society, and turnover is high.

What people need to realize, as each technology develops, is that we can use it impulsively, or we make decisions about how we use it instead.

I can, on impulse, check out dozens of books at a time. But the way I work now, I have to restrict that choice to one that is manageable, given my resources of time.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 27, 2012 10:16 AM
Comment #342912


You are right. My problem is impulse controlling others.

From my (relatively) powerful position in my organization, I am trying to spend less on wasteful activities. I fear it is a quixotic crusade, but I will fight the good fight, even if I expect to lose in the long term.

Posted by: C&J at April 27, 2012 11:04 AM
Comment #342922

Human beings need both structure and freedom. Simply following impulses or natural inclinations doesn’t always work well, but those who rigidly regiment things don’t always get it right, either. We can see things more clearly, if we step back and recognize that both impulses and plans, instincts and laws can be in error, that they are two sides of the same coin of human judgment.

And no, if you ask me, there is no solution to that problem, I think it’s a fundamental part of the human condition.

However, we can try to adapt to it, and humans have done just that, with varying degrees of success.

However, the way politics goes, folks don’t necessarily abandon either a lack of inhibition or a prohibition, or whatever other kind of policy is out there because it doesn’t work, because often personal power and personal reputation is caught up in the question of how good a given policy is. Other times, people just have their idea of what is right and what is wrong, and they’re sticking to it.

The beauty of our system, even when we don’t agree with it, is that it is well tuned to adapt towards appropriate responses to the challenges we face. It’s not like what the Chinese or the Russians (whether Soviet or today’s) have.

The question is whether we will let things move forward, or whether we’ll get stuck trying to force old policies to work when they don’t.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at April 27, 2012 12:31 PM
Comment #342923


I don’t think this is solvable. It is only manageable. I agree

But we cannot give up the fight to manage it. It would be a dereliction of duty.

Systems tend to pile on. People like to hide in the folds and permutations. It is human nature. It is much easier to claim to be burdened by other people’s rules or unjust actions than it is to take responsibility for your own. Complaining is fun for most people. Thinking is hard.

In what I wrote above, I am not so much making an argument as resolving to take action. Or more correctly, resolving to take less action, but more thoughtful and effective.

Posted by: C&J at April 27, 2012 1:09 PM
Comment #343163

I’m from the school of thought that says try to show people the correct way to do something over and over and over again.

The idea being that maybe they will learn something from the actions,faster than from screaming.

One can only hope…

Posted by: Highlandangel1 at May 1, 2012 11:17 PM
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