In endurance swimming, I found out this week, you slipstream* just like cyclists do in a peloton. My wife, a sea swimmer, told me that swimming close to the person in front – right up by their kicking legs, off to one side – saves about 30% of the energy.
When you are swimming for a mile or more in the sea, energy efficiency is the basis of everything. A 30% reduction is a big deal.
The brain also consumes energy and we are interested in efficiencies there. For instance, we learn things through repetition, which makes them automatic, saving us from using the energy-hungry pre-frontal cortex. There are a whole load of other strategies and tricks we use without necessarily thinking about them, to save us from doing mental heavy-lifting too often.
Explaining one of my online working habits to Neil Perkin earlier this week, I realised that what I was doing was a kind of cognitive slipstreaming, using bookmarking. To be exact, using other people’s bookmarks.
In my one of my top folders in Google Reader, one that I read a lot, I don’t just have feeds from blogs. Using the RSS feed from Delicious, I follow the bookmark streams of a few people who are reading and working on things that closely match my current interests.
As they read and bookmark things, I see them. It doesn’t save me all of the effort of reading them and highlighting and bookmarking for myself and making connections and putting them in context and writing about them. It saves me the search though, it saves me the effort, the joules of energy that would take, to decide that this – and not the other 25 things that have passed through my reader or Twitter stream in the past ten minutes – is worth bookmarking for reference.
Amazon Kindle’s public notes and highlights provide a similar kind of opportunity to slipstream other people’s cognitive exertions, their brains’ hard work, although I don’t use that as often as following the bookmarks of fellow travellers.
Slipstreaming in endurance sports is a collaborative endeavour. Like cyclists, endurance swimmers in a small group take turns swimming at the front, they develop a rhythm of moving up to take on the burden of pushing through the waves first, then falling back to an easier position. Even though they may be competing to get to the finish line first, the pack and the peleton move together, sharing the load.
The parallel with knowledge work suggests that we should share more than we do, even if some of it helps our competitors at times. It is the final manifestation of our work, the product shipping, the report’s publishing, the pitch being pitched where we compete in an all or nothing sprint. Up until those moments, everyone is smarter if they slipstream.
* My wife’s pointed out that it is usually called “drafting” rather than “slipstreaming” in her swimming group.
“We think we’re thinking faster, but actually we’re slowing down.” Caroline Webb, Partner at McKinsey & Co.
Following on from my last post, where I mentioned the brilliant “For Your Information” episode of Peter Day’s BBC series In Business in the context of advertising business models, I’d like to look at the other strand of the personal information theme in the programme.
Caroline Webb of McKinsey & Co, was introduced to discuss issues about information overload and its impact of personal productivity and executive teams, following on from the article she and Derek Dean wrote for McKinsey Quarterly, Recovering from Information Overload (free registration required):
In my talk at TEDx Brighton on the skills we need to develop to use the web effectively, I started from the point of view that information overload and distraction were two symptoms of a syndrome of inefficiency and mis-use of the web in our work. We need to make sure the web is working for us, and to do that we need to develop an understanding of networks, better habits of sharing, a sense of when to use our focus and attention in different ways and design more effective work-flows that took advantage of the way the web works.
McKinsey’s raising of this issue adds authority to a meme that’s been growing for some time, with posts like Declaring Email Bankruptcy etc.
In fact it puts me in mind of hopeful posts like E-Mail Is So Five Minutes Ago from BusinessWeek in 2005, when web 2.0 was just becoming an idea with real currency. It reminds us that the a yet unrealised hope for the social web was to help us work smarter, not just generate new opportunities for advertising.
In 2011, email isn’t dead – in fact it is still the centre of many people’s working days – and a range of other messaging options from Twitter to Basecamp updates can all add to rather solve the problems of overload and distraction. It isn’t even a case of us vs. the machines, it is a case that the culture we have evolved in using these things is corrosive and unproductive.
When Caroline Webb talks about an executive sending an email to a wide team and everyone leaping to reply on their BlackBerrys, whatever the hour, whether they are on holiday or in the car, the image that I can’t get out of my head is animals in cages reacting to a bell.
Like Pavlov’s dog we’ve allowed our reward centres and anxieties to be tuned to make us jump at the sound of a smartphone vibrating. The smartest, highest trained people we can get to run our companies are reduced to nervous monkeys.
Here’s a collection of insights from the BBC programme and from the McKinsey Quarterly article:
“Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.” You know this if you have worked in these cultures – it is literally impossible to do your best work when you’re reacting to round robins and erratic requests at all hours.
“All the benefits of the information technology and communications revolution, it has a well-known dark side: information overload and its close cousin, attention fragmentation. These scourges hit CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite particularly hard because senior executives so badly need uninterrupted time to synthesize information from many different sources, reflect on its implications for the organization, apply judgment, make trade-offs, and arrive at good decisions.”
“[executives] disjointedly attempt to grab spare moments with their laptops or smart phones, multitasking in a vain effort to keep pace with the information flowing toward them.” This is reactive, piecemeal work, dictated by the flow of communications, not the needs of the organisation, the situation, or the opportunities.
“Leaders need to change how they feel good about themselves…” People feel good because via email they get instant responses, can be hands-on on a project the moment they think about it (micro-management, as it was once known). On the flip-side, people feel good because they have a reputation for being ultra-responsive, available all hours.
Just as with Caroline’s quote at the head of this article stating that we fool ourselves into thinking we are thinking faster, “One might think that constant exposure to new information at least makes us more creative. Here again, the opposite seems to be true.”
The strategy you need to get out of this state of affairs is a combination of personal and systems.”It requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and we can’t do it alone: in our teams and across the whole organization, we need to establish a set of norms that support a more productive way of working.”
And, it seems, none of this is really new – Peter Drucker was talking about how knowledge workers and executives needed to behave in the 1960s: “some fairly basic strategies that aren’t very different in spirit from the ones Drucker described more than 40 years ago: some combination of focusing, filtering, and forgetting.”
Lastly there are three steps that are required to start to put this right, according to McKinsey:
We need to acknowledge and challenge the mind-sets and current patterns of behaviour.
Leaders need to delegate and resist the temptation to interfere…
Leaders need to work with their teams to “redesign working norms”.
Naturally, as boardrooms tend to be McKinsey’s clients they are focusing on leaders and executive teams in this analysis, but in my experience these things apply to knowledge workers, in fact anyone who uses email, at every level in every type of organisation.
One insight we have now, though, after all these years of social web tools spreading, is that it is just important to think about the culture of working with the web and electronic communications as the tools themselves. As Dan McQuillan said at CityCamp Brighton about – and I echoed in a way – digital tools and networks can be used to loosen clogged bureaucracies and ways of working. But if we don’t think about how they are being used, don’t challenge unproductive and corrosive ways of working, they will establish new workplace tyrannies and inefficiencies…
When change comes (and it will come) it will need to come simultaneously in changes to how we work and how we think about organisations, how hierarchies and networks work together.
The SuperSkills idea was one which I was airing for the first time, and am continuing to work on. The notes and links are all in the post – TEDx Brighton notes on my talk – I put up on the day. If you have any feedback at all I’d be immensely grateful…
And just so you can see what the slides are like with the fonts in beautiful Gotham – here they are again…
If you attended – thanks very much and here are the slides (which strictly speaking I should have posted beforehand). For more detailed notes about the detail of the talk, take a look at the post from TEDx last week.
The main change from this presentation’s debut at TEDx Brighton last week was to add a little about the business or management context for thinking about SuperSkills. Moving on from some ways of describing this I’ve used in the past, I talked about analysing the impact of social web on a business across four areas, with the acronym LOOP:
Long term: What are the strategic implications of the web for the next 5 – 10 years. How will it affect the classic PEST elements (Political, Economic, Social and Technological) in the organisation’s environment.
Operational: Here and now in the next 12 months where can social/web tools support operations such as marketing, customer service, sales, research, product development, HR etc.
Organisation: How will different teams be able to work together on social web related projects? How will information and insights be communicated quickly around the company?
People: What are the issues that the social web raises for our people? The line between public and private is blurring,
The feedback from both this talk and the TEDx one has been very positive (please do let me know if you have any criticisms, constructive or otherwise) and I’m going to start developing some of the ideas in a book now. Watch this space for more new son that front.
The main things that people have been positive about (other than the Gotham font) are:
The idea of investing time in learning tools like Twitter, to develop literacy.
How effective the Pomodoro technique can be.
Thinking about social networks as productivity tools at work.
Developing different approaches to work habits and workflow.
The importance of always-on sharing
Thanks to everyone who has shared their thoughts on the subject – it ‘s really useful in working out how a book about this might work.