Intelligent time wasting

Did you know that the BBC has a website called Intelligent Time Wasting? Someone told me about it. So in the middle of writing a paper (see below) I learned what the first office computer was like. The 4 minutes I spent on this topic, that might be useful at some point – rather like a tangled piece of string might be useful at some point – was a distraction from the task in hand and we all know how much distractions cost. Fortunately I managed to stop myself learning about keeping prize sheep in winter (although that could seem an attractive alternative to commuting to London).

Then I realized that the work environment has a similar form of intelligent time wasting stuff that stand in the way of getting work done. They sound a sensible thing to focus on but they're not. Sadly most of the intelligent time wasters in organisations take far longer than the 4 minutes of each BBC nugget. During the week at work I collected a list of seven. See if you recognize any of them.

1. Who gave you the permission/authority to go ahead? This is one that flies in the face of autonomy, empowerment and encouraging employees to take initiative. In hierarchical organisations it also implies that you are too junior to make choices and that you need to find someone more senior to endorse whatever it is.
2. What problem are we trying to solve? Well maybe there's no problem. Maybe we'll be missing an opportunity if we don't do something. Why are we always looking for a problem to solve? It smacks of 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' so I wonder how we are going to get innovative breakthroughs?
3. Can you address my concern? This takes ages in trying to reassure someone that their concern, worry, agitation, fretfulness or general anxiety has been previously thought through and addressed. It often suggests a lack of trust and a low level of risk tolerance. It goes hand in hand with:
4. We need [more ]data on this Ho hum. In this one data means rows of numbers in excel spreadsheets or in figures, charts, and quantitative information. It leads to people poring over one number completely losing sight of the actual topic in hand.
5. Can you put that in a paper? In spite of our exhortations towards paperless, social interactions, collaboration, working in the moment with others, there seems to be a false assumption that a paper will explain something better than you can do in a 5-minute conversation.
6. What's the scope of this? This can be a legitimate request but is a time waster if asked too early in a project. Preceding 'scope' decisions should be discussion, teasing out of information, looking at what's do-able given the resources, and so on. But people often seem reluctant to engage in this 'discovery' type of activity. Warning: be sure 'discovery' doesn't become an intelligent time waster.
7. Have you consulted with …? Yes, consultation is good and is also time consuming. Knowing when to stop and get on with the job is key here. 'Saturation point' is worth bearing in mind: it's when consultation with individuals stops revealing any new/relevant information.

All seven are stalling tactics that get in the way of action. They have an air of legitimacy but are, in fact, time wasting. They mask many of the attributes described in a useful discussion Working With Barriers To Organisational Learning which could equally read Barriers to Organisational Action.

Another good read is Authentic Management: Gestalt Orientation to Organizations and Their Development which has a chapter on Eight Running Games for Executives. It discusses further types of intelligent time wasters which, almost 40 years after that book came out, are still seen and heard in organisations.

What intelligent time wasters does your organisation favour? Let me know.

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