Back in 1969, Peter Drucker, the great management guru, writing in his book, The Age of Discontinuity, famously said, “To make knowledge work productive will be the great management task of this century.”
Four decades later, how are we doing?
Management. Let’s start with our managers and leaders. [And recall that Drucker saw a distinction here. He also said, “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things.” But for now, let's lump these two together.] How are our elected officials and our business leaders measuring up?
There seems to be room for improvement.
Just today a colleague I respect was asking me what I thought about the future of the country. She was troubled by the signs of decline…not sure I can do justice to the litany of symptoms she listed, but as I recall it included our failure to balance our federal budget, invest in our future, educate our young people, innovate, and much more. She said she knew the counter-arguments, the statistics on patents, the continuing role of the dollar as the world’s currency, etc., etc. but she was not reassured.
And this was not an isolated instance. Yesterday? Another colleague, this time on a phone call. Slight variations on the litany of dysfunction, but the same tone, the same conclusion. This time the remarks were much more pointedly directed at the Congress. I don’t care how young you are, if you’re reading this blog you can remember the days when Congress used to be able to pass a budget to run the federal government each year. Instead, in 2011, we’re on pace for four or more disruptions or near disruptions in that funding. And recall that these are generated by the Congress. They’re not the result of a tsunami hitting the East coast, or a meteor strike. These wounds are self-inflicted.
Tonight? A short conversation with a senior DoD guy, who’d been up on Capitol Hill today briefing a staffer. Similar vexation, this time with endless questions about proposed projects that aren’t going to see the light of day anyway, given today’s funding climate.
Adding it all up? Older knowledge workers are frustrated. Their contributions build on a firm society. Take away that stability, and their work loses its meaning. If instead of innovating and improving America’s long-term prospects, they’re planning for a shutdown (and this impacts private-sector firms partnering with government at all levels, state- and local as well as federal), they’ve been neutralized. And younger knowledge workers? They can’t find jobs that harness their skills and passion. They’re working at tasks that don’t challenge them. Are you anywhere in between? You can plug your own story in here.
The short of it? We have lots of problems that need solving. We have lots of knowledge workers eager to contribute, make the effort. But the framework that will harness that potential, make that effort effective is lacking.
Knowledge workers. But maybe it’s not that much better at our end. We’re not performing at our best either. We’ve allowed ourselves to become drained, stressed. All too often we’ve mistaken effort for effectiveness. We’re all averaging over a 100 text messages a day. We’re moving e-mails, but getting back 1.75 e-mails for every e-mail we ourselves answer. The gerbil on the treadmill is doing better; at least it doesn’t lose ground! We’ve allowed ourselves to become preoccupied with side concerns (the co-worker who mocks us; the cramped cubicles; the incessant pressure to produce more ) instead of the priorities at hand.
In a nutshell? Knowledge workers could take more initiative to make their work effective.
There’s a solution. It’s not about doing more – about adding an overlay onto the current incredible level of busyness. That’s no answer. Given today’s workloads, it’s the devil himself speaking
The way out? Doing less.
Managers and Leaders? Here’s what you can give up. The effort needed for command and control. The effort needed to divide the world up into “we” and “they” and then to document all the reasons why “they” might prove a problem or a threat. The effort needed to prevent “failure” – which simply leads to fewer but bigger failures, versus viewing “failures” as necessary and welcome steps in the learning process. The effort required to ignore your people. The effort required to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s approach. All these things are tiring you out! There’s more you can let go. Come up with your own better formulation.
Knowledge workers? How about taking more initiative to make your work more effective? There is undoubtedly a global context that limits your joint effectiveness, but don’t start there. Start with something you and your boss can work together to accomplish – something that’s under your control.
Together…how about taking more time to work out positive goals…then asking each other, each time an assignment is made and accepted: how is this or that work contributing to our goals? Is this the best use of our time and effort that we could make toward these aims?
Sound basic? You bet. Dangerously so.
Am I doing that with my group? With my boss? Not nearly so well as I should. Everything I’ve written sounds too much like advice I need to take, not to give. So instead of just ragging on you to get your act together, I plan to start close to home. Check back with me in a few months to see how we’re doing. Ask me. Hold me accountable. Better yet? Ask my people.