Some incredibly smart people have realized how the economy over the past few years seems to be creating quite a large valley between the upper class and the middle and lower classes. The larger that valley becomes, the harder it will be to bridge it. The same could be said, in many ways, about the valley that can grow between the salaried employees (management in this example) and the hourly employees (mostly entry level).
“Of course!” you say. “There has to be a separation!” That is not something I would ever deny. However, I do see problems when the bridges that need to exist between the two sides suddenly break down and become uncrossable, even by the best managers and employees. One must be aware of how deep and wide that valley is getting and make sure to keep as many channels to cross open as possible.
Communication is the first major bridge. It is probably the biggest one of them all and the one that can break down the easiest. Not everything a person knows in their job is meant to be shared. Management has their issues that may only minimally affect the team they supervise, while sometimes it could be in everyone’s best interest to not let all of the low down dirty secrets, System D as it could be called, of the physical labor force. Nobody needs to know how one goes about getting through their own person s—storms, so long as they do without any major collateral damage.
Collateral damage is what those above the labor want to avoid the most. Well, that and problematic emotional thunderstorms of rage, depression, and submission – not wanting to continue on with the job at hand. Nobody wants to see their work force surrender, especially due to preventable conditions that seemed to only occur because that valley between them and their bosses was too wide to communicate their symptoms of emotional imbalance. This is just a long-winded way to say that most employees know long before things get impossible that they are on the path to impossible. They just might not know how exactly to U-turn back to workable conditions.
If you are on a team where this valley appears to be forming, take the time out of your day to try and build back up those bridges. Communicate your issues, your ideas, and even speak up about the fact that you feel your supervisor is becoming much more of a flighty ghost of a boss than a rock-solid cornerstone to build a great team around. If you are a supervisor, manager, or what-have-you – and you are watching your team slip away or are suddenly finding yourself under scrutiny for your leadership abilities, work on the parts of your leadership that matter most to your team. Ask questions, discuss weaknesses on all sides of the company, and find out what everyone’s expectations are.
In many cases, expectations not being lived up to is one of those big deal-breakers between employees and their managers. Make sure to always know what is expected of you and continue to communicate to everyone necessary what you expect of them. If those bullet points change, communicate those changes. Paying attention to your surroundings and how all of your work-related variables ebb and flow is one of the most important skills any one on any level of the career ladder can learn and utilize to their benefit.
Attention, Communication, Commitment. Shrink the valley and build a rock-solid foundation of teamwork. Yes, it is much harder than it sounds, but keep focused. If you want it to come together, it will. Trust me.
Seeing as how one of my very good friends, Chris Barnes of Ridiculously Awesome, just finished up a lu-lu of a countdown about the 30 things he most loves about comics, I decided my post would slightly steal from the comic book world and morph it into something I can use to talk more about the wonderful world of Work and Productivity.
For the unaware, The World Of Cardboard Speech (as it has come to be known) was spoken by Superman to Darkseid during the epic grand finale of the Justice League Unlimited animated series. In around ninety seconds, we were given a glimpse into the mind of a Sun God (thanks Grant Morrison!!) and he showed us that he had always scaled back from his full power because, well, he’s Superman and he could conceivably be nigh-unstoppable if put in the correct mindset. Superman is well aware of the potential problems all of his superpowers could cause to people who could be defeated by another Earth citizen’s punch, let alone the punch of a solar-powered alien. For those that wonder what a topped out Superman could do one could look no further than the Earth-3 version, Ultraman, who is the mirror-image of Superman (that is, evil) and turned up to 11.
What we learn most from his speech is just how much he has to curtail his physical effort when saving the world, so as to still be their Savior rather than a Messiah. He knows he can function on the level of a “god” to the Earth, but chooses to simply keep order (also, with Batman around, I doubt I would want to try and take over the world, powers or no powers). This is something that can almost definitely be applied to the universe of Work, especially when it comes to teamwork.
Everyone is different. Everyone has different energy levels, ability levels, effort levels, etc. It is not out of the realm of possibility that on any given team there are people whose minimum ability could be higher than another person’s maximum ability. That higher-ability individual could invariably be tasked with potentially carrying the group on his back to the finish line, rather than let the team’s pieces move independently toward the same goal. These sort of situations can happen in every job, and I can not even badmouth or put down the system. Better employees have always and will always have more shoveled on their plate than worse employees. It’s a hazard of the job. Where the Cardboard comes in is when those that have the ability and the effort restrain themselves to keep from being targeted by those handing out the orders. Unlike in the world of DC Comics, this can create problems.
There are very few people, bar workaholics I guess, who want to see themselves dragging the rest of their team behind them all while being well aware of their actual abilities. It would be on the same level as Batman fighting off Killer Croc and Bane while Superman sat in a corner and randomly swatted at the air in a vain attempt at physical contact. Everyone in the room knows he is capable of much more, and is holding back because maybe on that day he doesn’t feel like being a superhero even though it is his job to do so (not exactly a job he had all that much say in, mind you, but it would be laughable to try and compare the average employee to the Last Son of Krypton on every level, now wouldn’t it?).
On the flip side, a much less noble Superman might find himself distressed and distraught over saving some other superhero countless numbers of times – a hero who is capable on some kind of super-powered level but is nonetheless weaker than the villainy he finds himself up against. Dick Grayson fighting Darkseid would be an incredibly one-sided affair, regardless of Grayson’s abilities at handling Killer Moth or Ding Dong Daddy when they get out of line. Why put yourself in a situation where you are clearly outmatched? Of course, in a job or career there are plenty of reasons to do such a thing (like pay increases or extra benefits), but those who are unable to increase their effort to desired levels will find themselves back where they started rather quickly, usually at the instance of whomever it is that was forced to save him or her by way of general workplace ethics.
It is not to say that one should never help out those less-able or less-experienced around them. However, it is important to keep an eye out for problems that could arise from people consistently underperforming or possibly even being underutilized because their talent level is much higher than currently assumed or judged. In every World of Cardboard there are two types of people, those that live in the world and treat it as normal and those that live in the world constantly monitoring their every action to make sure they are doing more good than harm. Even the hardest of workers can do harm, though in some cases the harm is more imaginary than real or based on variables no one is properly taking into account – like ability. If one worker understands their ability to be above average (say a 7 to the team’s 5), it would be unwise to assume that the team can do the work of an entire team of 7s, yet this happens quite often. On one hand, management would say that they have their goals and are sticking to them, and a percentage would even make it clear that they are fully prepared to replace the 5s if they do not comply to their demands. On the other hand, a group of 5s being tasked to follow such an average would find their job to be almost completely impossible to even do, let alone do at the level in which their superiors wish was being done.
And what happens to the 7 that finds himself stranded in the middle? Does he or she power themselves down to the 5s and treat potential opportunities like cardboard, or do they unleash the power they have to be the Savior the rest of their team desperately needs but may not exactly want? Remember, the world may not be ready for a full-powered Superman, especially when he goes about punching a New God through several buildings and slamming him into a crater in the middle of downtown. I don’t even want to think of the casualties involved – casualties that could occur just as much in a workplace environment when one person decides to let the cardboard just try and stand up for itself, bringing about the potential for an even higher average to be placed on the team, one that could itself be out of their reach and farther out of reach of the people they just supposedly ‘saved’ by plowing through to the projects end.
In the end, it is a tight rope most people will find themselves walking at some point or another during their years of employment, but few will find a way to walk it well and even fewer will find a way to soar above it…like a bird, a plane, or even Superman himself.
Imagine a newspaper headline – international news, amazing discovery, in the year 2011 we finally know that 2 plus 2 equals 4.
Let that sink in for a minute, and begin to realize the silliness comes from the simple fact that everyone already knows that obvious piece of information. Now expand your brain cloud and see the path I am inching my way down. Everyone knows that effort is important. Most people probably even know why it is important, but I suspect very few believe that they know with absolute certainty why Effort really matters. In effect, it actually is nothing more than simple math. We can all do that math and we are all quite aware of the equation needed to create Work.
Effort plus Time plus or minus Variables equals Production, or Productivity. Remember that I classify a variable as anything that is technically out of your control unless Effort is applied to change it. Effort is the part of the equation that is entirely controlled by us. Sure, one can say that at their place of employment they could want to expend all the effort in the world, but some outside force is holding them back from doing so. Fair enough, but I counter that argument by reminding that person that their job function does not need to be where their effort is, even during working hours. If a variable forces a productivity shutdown on one bit of workflow, move to something else. Move to anything else. Production isn’t always about a part-time job or a thirty-year career, it is about producing. Even if all you do at your job during that lull is rack your brain for a shopping list or ideas for weekend chores around the house, that still takes effort and you are still producing. No effort, no production. Effort matters.
Everyone has the same minimum amount of Effort they can apply (I am really going out on a limb for that factoid), but everyone also has a minimum and maximum tolerance for the effort they want to use on a given task. The more important the task, hopefully, the more effort is used in completing it. Everyone also has a list of roughly infinite things that they almost assuredly cannot do no matter how much effort they exert. This is that “minus Variable” situation. I could work sleepless nights for the next two years and probably have no incredible grasp on brain surgery.The variable of the information required would stop me cold and fast. Blood would also not be a fun variable to mess with. I’m not that kind of person. But if you put me down in a tiny chair next to a five-year old and task us each with long division, that kid could try with every single fiber in his being to do that math, but I would have very little trouble smoking through as many questions as needed to prove a point (the point that I’m smarter than a five-year old, I think).
Effort matters at every stage of every production. Effort matters even when we really would rather it not, like when we toss and turn for two or three hours trying to sleep. We are wasting an enormous amount of effort in order to do something that takes absolutely no effort outside of involuntary body functions. Effort matters because laziness is a skill. People put effort into being sloth, an emotional zero and one that does not seem to exist on my switchboard. Effort also matters because everyone knows it is really, really, really difficult to sustain when the variables start to crunch down. Showing sustainability is a core piece of the productivity puzzle, a piece a lot of people look for but may not even truly understand the concept of.
Bosses, Supervisors, Managers, etc. all want people who do their work as close to the mannerisms of a machine as possible. Machines don’t get lazy (unless they break, of course), machines don’t get angry at the sudden increase in effort they might be hardwired to give now that some deadline has been moved up and production numbers have skyrocketed. Machines have no emotion – a key variable that can destroy (or heighen) effort in less time than it takes to answer that 2 plus 2.
If you feel you are the kind of person that finds emotion to be more of a driving force in your workflow than Effort, remind yourself that the harder you push yourself when you are not emotional will allow you to get emotional without ruining your work. No one can turn off their emotions, but it can be almost a completely effortless task to work around them. Most people know what situations bring out which flavors of emotion, and usually can see them coming. Whether or not they are strong enough to stop those emotions is talk for another time, but if you know that every single day at your job you are going to get angry for ten minutes, prepare for that anger so that when it arrives you can cool yourself down without clogging up the productivity pipes you had flowing. Be aware of the variables, be aware of the goals, and be aware that effort is the beginning of a solution, not a punishment. Hard work will always be hard. 2 plus 2 will always be 4, and effort will always matter.
My initial note for this post is that the following is going to seem like a gigantic waste of time, but when creating new processes/workflows/whatever it is absolutely imperative that time be spent making sure that you are getting the most out of what you are doing, even if that means taking a much longer time in the planning stages than would normally be done. And really, once you do this once you will probably never have to think about it again. It just happens. That is how these things work.
I spoke in previous posts about recognizing how much effort it takes to complete work, and decided that now would be a good time to talk about actually charting where your effort goes based on what it is you are trying to accomplish. To start, just grab a piece of paper and a pen and line up a few columns at the top:
Task – Time Available – Effort Required – Goal – Time Actual – Comments
Pick a common task to start with, something that may not even need this kind of process to be beneficial. Remember that as practice is performed, the effort necessary diminishes. Think of a child cleaning their room (properly) – the child needs much more time to complete the task than a parent would, especially when that parent can not stand the sight of their child’s living conditions anymore. So, your task is to clean the room, and your time available may be an hour. Now, eventually you may break down this project into much smaller tasks, like organizing, vacuuming, dusting (if you wish), and so on and so forth. Each one of those tasks may require a different amount of effort to complete, but for this example we will try to aggregate an average amount of effort (which you will, of course, eventually be able to do on your own). Knowing that I have an hour, I may be able to tell myself that my effort needs to be around a 7 or 8 to complete it. So I work hard, keep my effort high, and maybe get the room cleaned in 50 minutes instead of an hour. Chart that, and tell yourself in your Comments section that you feel you kept your effort where you thought it should be and finished with what you consider to be a “clean room”, which was your original goal. Now you can see that when you have an hour next time for a similarly disastrous room you may only need to put forth an effort of 6 or even 5 to still complete the task, or you can keep your effort high and finish in a speedier fashion, freeing up more time for anything else on your to-do list for that day.
I know this sounds corny, and almost like a waste of time, but that is what happens when you decide to replace old systems with new ones. Your old ones may have worked fine, but remember that if you even feel the slightest bit of desire for change either something is not working correctly or you may just be a fiddly person in general just searching for new things. That is not exactly a distinction I can help you sort out except to always remember where your priorities are. If a room needs cleaning, it may be better to just clean it than to try to chart it – especially so if the task is one you can do with minimal effort and time. The previous paragraph was only meant to act as an example for how the system works rather than a cry for change on anyone’s part (unless your job happens to be housekeeping and it may be of some value for you to examine where your energy and effort goes in a given work day).
If you plan to start a new project, give charting a shot. It may take some extra time and (gasp!) effort, but what can be produced from an improved system can make all the difference in the world. Understanding where those two pieces (time and effort) of the production puzzle fit together can be the beginning of whole new levels of work – some you may never have dreamed capable of. Visualizing your work is a much better tool for analysis and future planning than waiting for crises and deadlines to strike and leave you unable to do much of anything before sirens and alarms ruin you.
All you have to do is pick a task and test it out, keeping in mind to note any potential variables that may have helped or hindered your ability to complete a task. Separate larger projects into smaller chunks, especially projects with more overall effort required on your part, and pay attention when things begin to get easier. Realizing you are building a knowledge base is a fantastic feeling, and can lead to even more improvement overall. If you feel like you are learning, it becomes easier to not even pay attention to that process. Amazing, right? Absolutely.
I really felt like restating my opening from the last post and say once more that “Hard work is hard”. The funny thing about the phrase, though, is that what can be defined in one moment as “hard work” could over time fall back into being “easy work”. When that happens, it leads to a change in those two big levels, Production and Effort. If the work is easy, one has two potential changes that can be made in their workflow.
The first is to continue using the same level of effort and simply produce more. Now, when I say “same level”, I am speaking on a scaled system. It can be as simple as 1-10, and when you first start with the hard work it might take an effort of 8 to create a production of 4, but over time it may only take an effort of 2 to make that 4 just as well as you used to with an 8. I know I’m just randomly spitting out numbers here, but there is sense to be made. So you can keep that 8 EL and see yourself suddenly reaching a 16 PL, or you can back down to the 2 EL and keep your PL at a steady pace, opening up the time (that awful constant variable ) to place some other level of effort on some other level of work (or relaxation).
Remember to always pay attention to when those levels begin to fluctuate. Noting when effort becomes less and production stagnates (if you are one to be pushing for maximum output) can help you rewire your workflows to either use less time or create more product – whatever that product may be. If your work contains many steps with varying levels of effort required, watching where your effort goes and acknowledging your positives and negatives is a key piece of defining how best to utilize your time. If you find yourself straining to produce anything of quality with maximum effort, it should be incredibly obvious that you may need to outsource that particular task and concentrate on the things you can do and do well. However, problems can arise when there is no possibility for passing off tasks, leaving bottlenecks of truly hard work staring you in the face. Thankfully, following usual learning curves, it can come to be (if one truly does care about what they are trying to produce) that soon that task’s EL will drop down to something manageable and you will find yourself almost amused at how much work you used to do on something that is now as involuntary as breathing.
Adjusting your Effort is a fantastic jumping off point when priorities become problematic, be they production or relaxation based. Not having enough time for either can hinder any project, and keep morale (another variable) bottom-feeding instead of rocketing forward. The more I find myself typing, the less I see effort as a roadblock to creating things I like and hope the world enjoys. The more you do the things you love, the more you will see how important those levels, those variables, and those priorities are both presently and looking ahead to future goals. Regardless of those goals, your levels will constantly be changing. Be aware, adjust, and produce.
Hard work is hard. Just gaze at that sentence for a while. Think of every single little thing that can muck up your ability to do whatever work it is you want to do. Think of the physical problems, the mental ones, and everything in between. There are a lot of circumstances that can make it almost impossible to work, including your own limitations, whether real or imagined. Hard work is hard. Never forget it.
Going over most of my writings I have realized that many of them deal, in some way, about maximizing output. It comes down to how much of something you want to produce and how you are going to go about producing. Production Level simply denotes how much you wish to produce, though what exactly you produce is entirely up to you. Effort Level is how much work you want to have to do to reach your Production Level. The problems begin to start when either the EL is too low or the PL is too high after taking into account all other variables.
Before I get into those variables, I want to explore these two levels in slightly more detail. It is in my opinion that entities (corporations, businesses, and by association the people in charge of them) care more about Production than Effort. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, are the general day-to-day worker ants of those entities, who almost always care more about their required Effort than what they are being told to Produce. Obviously, there are cases where employees do care about the Production, especially in the world of sales and commissions. These people can see incredibly clearly how much their effort and their production are tied together. They don’t boost their Effort, and their Production, in this case finalized sales, takes a huge hit. Success in just about any field can be correlated with how much a person values Production over Effort.
Back to the variables. It is worth mentioning that having a lower PL does not always mean someone is using a lower EL. The problem with the variables is that it does not take many of them to disrupt the conversion rate between EL and PL. For starters, everyone has a maximum EL built into them. There is only so much work a given person can do before they just have to stop or dramatic slow down. As such, this will always create a maximum PL, because even if the human factor is entirely removed from the equation, there are still only so many hours in the day.
Time is a harsh variable in the EL/PL ratio, especially when it comes to deadlines or even simply the end of the work day arriving much sooner than you actually wish to (at least on some level). In that way Time is, in actuality, also a constant. We can not actually change how much time we have, but we can change what exactly we do in that time to make sure we are maximizing our output. If a boss or supervisor decides to change a deadline suddenly, moving it much closer than originally intended, that causes the necessary PL to skyrocket, which it can not afford not to, but the variables it changes (like morale) could actually be much more of a hindrance than a help.
Just remember that Production should always be the goal, no matter what work is being done. Make sure to take notice when the necessary Effort required is becoming impossible to manage, and continue to refine and hone your understanding of the ratios needed for success to be not just possible – but inevitable. Hard work will still be hard, but only as hard as it has to be.
(…and make sure to check out my Tumblr, Apparently Photographic, among the links on the right. It is currently a wasteland, but I hope to add new material as much as I can. I am open to suggestions at email@example.com. Invite me to Google+ if you happen to sneak in somehow – JM)
The following is dedicated to Merlin Mann, “fake internet guru” of 43 Folders and Back To Work, which I thoroughly enjoy and have hopefully mentally profited from (if I actually read his material, which I don’t).
Truth be told, I heard about Merlin years ago, right after I first started getting into GTD (odd, because I do not actually use the system) and stumbled upon the Hipster PDA. I link only because there could be some people that read this that have absolutely no idea what I am talking about. That was probably two years ago, at this writing, and then somehow over the winter I found myself wanting to become a podcast listener, and thought that finding a good podcast about writing might actually help me accomplish some of my crazy goals. That led me to Back To Work, and the rest of the 5by5 network (which I thoroughly enjoy despite not fitting into the main “nerd” mold of a high percentage of the listener base). I listen to all of the shows, but find myself mostly connecting with the things that Merlin says, even when he goes on long-winded rants on Buddhism and the Macintosh, of which my brain is not exactly keen on trying to parse outside of the general waft of curiosity I get from listening.
I want to be writer, and as I have heard close to three billion times (if I paid attention, which I don’t – double speed) is the simple notion that in order for a person to be a writer, they have to write. Every day would be good, even for three minutes. I get it, I completely and totally get it. I do have the desire within myself to write, to be a writer, and in one of those crazy Stephen King alternate dimensions maybe even make some kind of career out of the words I type or speak (no ghost babies or demonic spiders though, please. Thanks.). Sadly, it seems as though I have a problem.
I do not, as the title of this post suggests, care about myself on this level. Regardless of how much I think I want to be some kind of hyper-blogger, or any kind of writer really, I find it exceedingly difficult to put forth a caring effort. Then I remembered (and had been reminded numerously of) Mr. Mann’s post on caring about what you do in life. I can read that until my eye sockets bleed strawberry preserves and I still have an incredibly difficult time wrapping my head around it. I know that I should care. I believe that I should care about what I write, regardless of what topic it is, what genre or style I choose, or whether or not anyone actually sees it. That third thing is where my faith in myself completely breaks down.
I put quite a lot of care into what other people think about what I put down on paper (or the web, or whatever). I want people to see it, yes, but I want people to have some sort of reaction. It is not that I am ever trying to fish for reactions or trying to be outlandish for the sake of publicity. I write what I feel I should write when I feel I should write it, but there are many, many times – especially over the last few years and more and more over the past few weeks where I have found myself wanting to write and simply not doing it. I know, I know. Gotta get the hand moving and the words will just come out, no problem. I totally accept that and understand that my own inability to care and my reliance on the caring of others to drive me is a horrible way to live a life and an even more horrible way to build a potential career (even one of the side of whatever it is that makes me money to survive).
I want to get away from that. I want to care. I know that I apparently should and it causes a stinging from toes to scalp that I may have to just forget about what other people think and just do. Just…do whatever it is I want to do and know that even if nobody else ever sees what I do or cares about it in the slightest that I cared enough in the first place to actually devote time to writing it out. I know that I will get there eventually. One can only hope anyway. I can only hope. Only hope…and care.
Class dismissed, so, erm…yeah.