Remember the “Computers are Everywhere” slogan from this vintage 80’s cartoon commercial? It appeared on broadcast television during Saturday mornings as a way to educate young audiences to the newfound efficiencies computers were bringing to all aspects of society, including air traffic control, fire response, and space travel. The commercial delivered an important message to kids, probably the same ones who a few decades later, would be at the center of the tidal wave of innovation and speculation that came to be known as the dotcom era. Notwithstanding the commercial’s positive message and influence, it neglected to mention the importance of doing things faster, cheaper, and better, presumed the right things were being done to start with. Which is to say, it didn’t pay to be quicker at doing the wrong things.
This is the basis for effectiveness, which has become the mark of quality for 21st century knowledge work. But what exactly is effectiveness and what renders a person, process, or technology more effective? In this series, Boosting Effectiveness, I will present the essential characteristics for effectiveness in knowledge work, and discuss how you can improve effectiveness in your own day-to-day knowledge work.
Purpose and Objectives
Legendary management scientist, Peter Drucker, differentiates the logic of work from the logic of working. Work, he says, represents the tactical actions defined by an organization to fulfill a set of objectives. These objectives in turn, represent the direction and “action commitments” of the organization towards a common purpose while also setting the standard for measuring performance. You may hear terms like ‘mission’, ‘vision’, ‘strategy’ or ‘tactics’, but the general concept is the same – purpose, objectives and the tactical actions derived from them form a framework meant to inspire and concentrate an organization’s thoughts and efforts towards a common point.
Countries are founded on this type of framework. The United States of America defines its purpose in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. This constitution in turn defines a set of objectives, that include the Bill of Rights.
Business organizations also hold their thoughts and actions accountable to this framework. Consider a a high-tech company with the mission of “organizing the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful“.
The logic of working follows a similar principle. Drucker reminds us that “making the worker achieving implies consideration of the human being as an organism having peculiar physiological and psychological properties, abilities, and limitations, and a distinct mode of action”. Consider, for example, an individual who decides to live a life that remains true to her core values and principles.
Therefore, boosting effectiveness in knowledge work first requires we maintain an intimate understanding of the context for what is ‘right’. The key is to understand that there are two contexts for effectiveness in knowledge work. The first embodies the purpose and objectives of the organization through the definition and creation of work, and the second embodies the purpose and objectives of the worker through their ‘distinct mode of action’, which includes their talents, skills and knowledge.
This brings me to the first principal for boosting effectiveness in knowledge work:
Boosting effectiveness in knowledge work requires an intimate awareness and understanding of the purpose and objectives of the work (logic of work), along with the purpose and objectives of the knowledge worker (logic of worker).
Any bicycle mechanic will tell you the importance of regularly maintaining a wheel’s ‘trueness’. This process involves the careful adjustment of tension, provided by the wheel’s spokes, to achieve a perfectly straight wheel.
Boosting effectiveness follows a similar logic. Both require finding a harmonic balance between potentially opposing elements. When truing a wheel, a single turn of the spoke can impact any of the four variables controlling its shape and performance. In knowledge work, any decision or action that doesn’t fully harmonize logic of work with the logic of the worker can have a detrimental impact on one, the other, or both. Consider the following examples that benefit both the work and the worker:
- Raising team motivation by hiring the right person
- Increasing levels of trust after allowing team to self-organize
- Rise in productivity after switching to a web development framework designed for programmer happiness
This brings me to the second principal for boosting effectiveness in knowledge work:
Boosting effectiveness in knowledge work requires that decisions concerning people, process or technology harmonize the logic of work with the logic of the worker.
In his book ‘Reflections on Management‘, Watts Humphrey talks about the importance of creating and communicating ‘responsible commitments’. These commitments are key to a team’s performance, and according to Humphrey ‘the only way for the team to operate’. Thus far, the principles for boosting knowledge worker effectiveness have focused on the logic of work and the logic of the worker. Responsible commitments, although rooted in a work plan, are also designed to elicit and nurture a shared vision and commitment from all team members. This is key in an era of knowledge work where the body of knowledge required for effective decision making rests with the knowledge workers themselves. Humphrey points out four necessary characteristics of these commitments:
- They should be based on a work plan
- They should be freely assumed and publicly accessible
- They should follow a phase of diligent preparation
- They should precede the performance required to fulfill them
Responsible commitments thus ensure that the vision and commitment towards fulfilling an objective starts with the specialists, while also providing a motivational boost for two reasons. First, the individual and/or team will feel more confident in achieving commitments they help define. Second, with their name associated to the commitments, credibility is also on the line.
Therefore, the third principle for boosting effectiveness in knowledge work:
Boosting effectiveness in knowledge requires a culture of creating and communicating ‘responsible commitments’ of work, by engaging and eliciting the thoughts and opinions of all members whose responsibility it is to fulfill them.
In February 2001, 17 software developers met to discuss lightweight software development methods. Heavyweight predictive software development approaches, such as the Waterfall method, were perceived ineffective, complicated and slow to respond to changing requirements. The software development community was heavily criticized through widely quoted statistics showing the failure rate of software development efforts. The air was right for a change and this now infamous meeting resulted in what has become the Agile software development movement.
The software development practices born out of this movement share a common characteristic. They are all designed around the early and continuous discovery and adaption to change. Test driven development, for example, which forces a programmer to confront the question “Why am I doing that?” more times than not, has been proven more effective at improving the quality of software being produced. Or take Agile’s promotion of daily meetings, which inspire all team members to open up and think through their work day, anticipating changes while also better understanding their previous issues through shared feedback. There is also Scrum’s burndown chart, which helps team members visualize their daily progress, or Agile Retrospectives, which give all members a chance to reinforce what they liked, learned, lacked and longed for from the previous software release. These practices are all designed to generate quality feedback so teams can make the necessary adjustments.
This brings me to the fourth principal for boosting effectiveness in knowledge work:
Boosting effectiveness in knowledge work requires practices designed to generate timely, accurate, precise, and complete feedback regarding the work’s output or the worker’s performance.
Arguably the most fundamental and overarching element when talking about boosting knowledge worker’s effectiveness is trust. By trust, I’m referring to professional trust and its components. In order to establish the foundation for boosting a worker’s effectiveness, there needs to be a strong and growing foundation of trust between a worker and his team, his employer as well as the technologies and processes underlying her work. Knowledge management researcher, David Snowden, confirms the importance of trust (pdf) for the effective exchange of knowledge by suggesting “shared context is vital to knowledge exchange, and such context always involves some human trusted validation.”
This brings me to the fifth and final principal for boosting effectiveness in knowledge work:
Boosting effectiveness in knowledge work requires the growing presence of professional trust between the worker and his colleagues, employer, tools, processes and customer.
This concludes the series on Boosting Effectiveness.