This is a citizen contribution by Adam Chapman.
We all know the scenario. Person appears beside your desk and says “I’ve sent you an email…” My first reaction is to question why that wasn’t just enough and to leave me to answer it in my own good time. Or the usual other questions, such as: “Did you see / hear about xyz already?” “Haven’t you had the chance to look at abc yet?” And when I answer “No” the very next thing I get told is that there’s been an email, Intranet or social media announcement about it and I should have seen it already. Like I’m inadequate for not checking all my work emails and social media at 6am every day, including weekends.
All this is about speed. Speed for speed’s sake.
There’s nothing wrong with getting things done efficiently and on time. Without sounding like a Luddite, the ‘always on, always connected’ mentality that does help get some things done faster is creating problems with the basics of doing business. We are so obsessed with the next email, the next agenda item that we no longer truly realise why we are in business.
Why do people have this obsessive need to keep informationally ahead of others and be seen to be operating speedily (for it is rarely true people actually work much faster than each other)?
I posit that it’s the fear of being left behind, the fear of not knowing some snippet of information. Of desperately needing to be seen to be advanced and in-front. When I’m flying for business I’ll be on an early flight. I’m tired as I’ve risen early, driven for an hour to the airport, queued for an hour to get through security and it’s still just touching 7am. I get on the plane and usually I just relax a bit. I close my eyes, I put on my noise cancelling headphones, a little Café del Mar music and I drift. I arrive fresh and ready for the day, which is going to finish at 6pm followed by a team dinner until 10 or 11pm. In short, it’s going to be long and tough.
Before I close my eyes I grab a quick look round the other suits on the flight. They’re all sat with tablets or laptops and they’re tap-tapping away, changing small details in their presentations or spreadsheets. They’re offline replying to emails to create a tsunami of importance the minute they connect to wifi the other end of the flight.
Why are they so busy with last minute changes? Why is it not until we’re taxi’ing that people switch off their cellphones? Waiting for one last email to come in with the details needed to make those changes. One last quick text to the office or a call to another colleague who is flying elsewhere. All this speed is killing our ability to be effective in our businesses.
People are not using technology for their benefit. They are allowing it to control them and all in the name of looking faster, or smarter. Which they really aren’t. Can we all slow down a bit, please?
Email. That’s where it all started. It’s great isn’t it? Fast, no printing, you can add attachments, you can even send your thoughts to the entire company1. So what has happened since? If your inbox has been like mine over the years, it will have been filled with hundreds of semi-literature, barely thought through notes and short one-liners, rather than properly composed thoughts, laid out in a well-structured, accessible and actionable format.
The demands of good old fashioned letters make us slow down and take the time to think. We need paper, a pen (to write or just sign the printed version of our letter), an envelope, a stamp. The minute we can machine gun out emails, we do. Just like Orwell wrote about ‘duckspeak’ in 19842. It is not your job to reply to emails within minutes, without thinking. It is not your goal in business to have an empty inbox.
Now let’s add to that all of the communication technologies you might use in any modern office. A desk phone (sometimes). Your cellphone. Both of your voicemails. The little Skype window that keeps popping up. A refreshing Twitter page. Your LinkedIn inbox. And for some you can add other instant messengers like WhatsApp, a plethora of other social media platforms and collaboration places (I’m looking at you, Trello, Yammer and Huddle).
Now you’re trapped. So much to do, so little time to do it in. And your day job too. Always-on is expected, so you tolerate always-on.
The answer? It’s not speed – that much I can promise you 100%.
Your business success will not come from sharp comments fragmented across different platforms and systems. Your business success is built gently, diligently and painstakingly over time. Real success won’t even see speed as an issue. Can you think of one truly convincing anecdote about a business or a deal that ruined the competition because you replied to an email faster than someone else?
This ‘long time well spent’ attitude has been the hallmark of all successful businesses since time immemorial. Was Ford the result of a few quick paragraphs scribbled down? Was Microsoft the result of a few text messages? Amazon an accident in an email trail?
The only way to success is to do the work. You need thought, patience and planning. It’s not going to win you instant acclaim. There is no speedy shortcut to success. Glamour is not substance. Glamour can come later – but hey trendy people in Converse tapping on tablets down at the coffee shop while listening to their iPod look so much better for a photoshoot about a business start-up than you sitting in your home office actually thinking seriously.
For those of us who are old enough (and I just about fit into this category) the following will sound perfectly normal. For younger readers, you’ll have to use your imagination a bit:
I was in my first job and I had to go visit a reseller who was in the East of England. About a 2 hour drive on twisty-turny single carriageway roads3. I had no laptop so had to know my business in my head and in some printed notes I carried with me. I had no cellphone so I had no way of getting ‘the latest, speediest information’ to me when I left the office. In short, my colleagues and I had no expectations of immediacy from me.
I had a great meeting which posed some questions. I took the 2 hour drive back – mulling over those questions in my mind and when I arrived at the office, I debriefed with my manager, giving not only an account of the meeting but some possible answers to questions raised. I’d had time to think about the business.
Now let’s make that meeting today. You drive there, hearing your cellphone beep with new emails and texts as you drive. You resist the temptation to look at it while you drive. You don’t reply fast enough for someone, so they call you (they hate doing this as people don’t talk anymore – but it was really honestly the last resort for them, you were on a long drive). You arrive not thinking about the meeting but about other issues.
The meeting goes fine but not brilliantly. As you’re handing back in your visitors badge to reception your cellphone rings. It’s your manager: “How did it go? What were the outcomes?” You mention briefly how it went and a few questions that were raised. You get back “So what are you going to do about it?” And we’re back to duckspeak and badly formed ideas, which in turn beget bad business.
High tech has given us new abilities to communicate but it’s stripped us of quality in most instances. And quality of thought – and thinking itself – is important.
Some decisions can be made quickly. But many important decisions, discoveries and insights only come in the fullness of time.
This is the moment where this article could turn into yet another trendy suggestion piece. You know the sort, you see them on LinkedIn all the time – “No Email Friday” or “Hug a Colleague Monday” or “Call Your Boss Wednesday”. But it won’t, I promise.
All I advocate is choosing to use the technology rather than have it use you.
Keep using it; enjoy it; get more from it. Just use it appropriately and at a pace that works for you. If your apps, websites and platforms don’t allow you to think, then you’re being gamed. Here are some suggestions that might help you get back to your business and not your technology:
This sounds counter-intuitive but bear with me. If you let people know – and demonstrate when they test you (and they will test you) – that you don’t read emails immediately; that you’re happy to voicemail non urgent calls; that you reply to texts later in the day, then it forces people to slow down, think and interact properly with you. Walk over to see someone face-to-face if you can. Lack of access is power. If you need my input – you’ve got to allow me the time to think it through.
Stay ‘one version behind’
Don’t adopt new platforms the second they become available. Have you noticed how a lot of stuff Google creates has a ‘beta’ tag on it? Or is in a lab until it’s either released or junked? That’s a lot of free beta testers they have working for them. And does your most important client really only communicate now over WhatsApp?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to re-invent the wheel. If you have an expert in your company who can do something better than you, use their talent. You don’t need to learn how to use Publisher or Photoshop, when someone in marketing can do it better for you. And if you’re really stuck – can you outsource it? You don’t need to know HTML to interpret the analytics (and make subsequent business decisions) for your website. You’re a manager and if you prefer learning software to making decisions and working them through, then fire up Word and write your resume.
Advocate These Principles
Don’t allow yourself to hide these principles away. Don’t forget them because there’s one awkward team member who doesn’t like the new business-focused mentality. You’re a manager – a leader – and this is what we do. We take the lead, we feel uncomfortable perhaps but we stick with a good idea and see it through and inspire others to do the same.
Spend time with your team. Talk humanly with them, rather than hide behind emails. If you have tough news to deliver, do it side-by-side with them. If you have good news to deliver do the same. Talk often, rather than have a big yearly kick off that people forget about by February 1st. Forget about technology and speed.
People will hate you to start with. You’ll be called a Luddite. You’ll be called aloof, unresponsive, too slow, even downright rude. But you’re getting smarter, more efficient and charismatic. When you do communicate it’s with feeling and thought behind it. Why make 10 short communications when a single thoughtful communique could be summoned just as effectively? When you’re questioned as to why you’re doing this, explain it.
Stand out by your insistence on meaningful communication and thought and not by speed alone.
1. I miss the days when companies were less savvy and allowed just anyone to mail “All Cortex City”, especially when disgruntled employees were leaving.
2. http://www.orwelltoday.com/duckspeak.shtml if you’ve not read 1984 yet. If not, go do it now.
3. The sort of road that sprouts tractors and other farm vehicles if you take your eyes off it even for a second.