Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"Busy"

That’s the standard reply these days from just about anyone to whom I pose the question, “How are you doing?” Back when I worked on Wall Street, when cell phones were rare and a blackberry was something you ate, the response was “Great!” or “Fantastic!” Today, the responder inevitably puts their head down and shakes it in disbelief as if to underscore the pile of work they’re facing while they pronounce, “Busy,” usually with a hint of resignation and a small sigh for effect. This seems to be a universal reply: This morning, at the grocery store, a customer in front of me asked the cashier how she was doing. “Busy” was her reply. There were three of us in line as she “busily” dragged goods across the scanner and “busily” watched as the customer swiped her credit card for payment. Busy, indeed.

Cut to a typical morning at the airport, where lately I’ve been spending a lot of mornings, as my travel schedule tends to keep me airborne. Near the gate, there are usually several well-dressed gentlemen talking on a cell phone, typing diligently into a blackberry or working on a laptop (or, most often, some combination of the three), grabbing those precious minutes between Group 1 and Group 4 boarding to respond to an email or add that important column to a spreadsheet or follow up with someone at the office to ensure that proposal went out. Wow. Are more deals getting done? The now ubiquitous blinking blue lights on the half-ounce Bluetooth earpiece screams of the diligence and dedication of the world-weary working warrior that, even when he’s not working, he’s working, always ready to take that call in an instant, always ready to get the deal done, always available, anytime, any place, to serve you better, to be the best he can be, to excel and beat his competition.

Then why, pray tell, can I rarely get someone on the phone on the first try? Why am I almost always sent into voicemail when I call someone at the office? Where is the friendly greeting of years gone by that asked me, politely, to where I would like my call directed? Here’s my theory: we busy ourselves with nothing. We busy ourselves to feel as if we’re being productive. We create “work” where none exists. We are victims of the information economy, struggling to shift our focus from the piecemeal workaday processes that used to yield definitive deliverables you could put your arms around, to the now amorphous intangibles that characterize the product for which so many of us are being paid. Contemplate this: If I sit and think about a client’s business challenge for five hours while staring at the Pacific Ocean, am I being less productive than attempting the same great feat while juggling my cell phone, blackberry and laptop? In which scenario will the client gain more value? What is worth more to the client? Me multitasking, and after two weeks finally squeezing out enough time to consider and respond thoughtfully to the client’s issues, or spending a half-day staring out to sea, contemplating possible solutions based on twenty-plus years of experience and a whole lot of formal education and heading back to the office to write them down? Both deliverables yield the same revenue for the firm. Ironically, the one that is delivered faster, with far more dedicated thought on my part, is the one that might lead the uninformed observer to conclude I was being lazy and unproductive, while my harried counterpart, delivering late, piecing together bits of thoughts over a far longer period of time, is assumed to be the “busy” person who appears to be hardworking.

Think about that. And think about how your own processes would be impacted by a shift in thinking that reflects true productivity, rather than perceived diligence. Confusing activity with accomplishment is a fundamental challenge to good business process management practices.

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