Scheduling Time

November 3, 2013

One of the interesting things at IBM, at least for me, has been how common it is for people to use Lotus Notes to first see when people might be available, and then to schedule meetings.  Unfortunately there is no way to see why someone else has a slot blocked off; only that it is.  That is why I think an improvement would be to allow circles of visibility, so certain people can see why your calendar is blocked off and whether it seems possible to propose a shift.  Though maybe in hierarchical organizations, this would lead to others requiring membership in circles and imposing value judgments on commitments.

Of course the best for me is the graduate student approach of having very little of one’s time scheduled.  Not just from the scheduling viewpoint itself, but also in the sense of not being too busy to allow thinking time.  As some say, “People with loose, flexible schedules, on the other hand, seem pretty boss”.  A fairly thoughtful self-help (in contrast perhaps to much self-help on time management) article puts forth several good ideas succinctly: slow down, stop trying to be a hero, go home, minimize meetings, go dark, leave the office for lunch, give up on multitasking, and say no.  Doing these things seems to make things nice and slow.

Although some of my work these days is about managing, there is also an element of making things.  That is why I find this article about the difference between the manager’s schedule (which is often partitioned into one-hour blocks) and the maker’s schedule (for people like programmers and writers that generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least: units of an hour are barely enough time to get started writing) so insightful.  As is discussed:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.

I suppose that is why many professors hide away at home or elsewhere when they want to get some serious thinking or writing done:  to avoid handling exceptions.  Can one obtain the managerial benefits of meetings without their negative impacts on making?

To address this, of course one needs to first determine why have meetings in the first place.  A central role of meetings is for coordination.  But perhaps this role of meetings can be eliminated if there is a possibility of ambient awareness.  This term is something that Clive Thompson uses in his book Smarter Than You Think.  As he says regarding meetings [p. 217]:

But younger workers were completely different.  They found traditional meetings vaguely confrontational and far preferred short, informal gatherings.  Why?  Because they were more accustomed to staying in touch ambiently and sharing information online, accomplishing virtually the tasks that boomers grew up doing physically.  Plus, the younger workers had the intuition—which, frankly, most older workers would agree with—that most meetings are a fantastic waste of time.  When they meet with colleagues or clients, they prefer to do it in a cafe, in clusters small enough—no more than two or three people—that a serious, deep conversation can take place, blended with social interaction, of a sort that is impossible in the classic fifteen-person, all-hands-on-deck conclave.

Besides ongoing coordination, though, another purpose of meetings is to perform planning in the first place.  Again, though, it raises the question of whether planning is really necessary.  For physical work requiring a great deal of equipment and lead time, planning seems required, but what about knowledge work?  In an article about Shannon, Bob Gallager essentially argues against too much planning, saying:

In graduate school, doctoral students write a detailed proposal saying what research they plan to do. They are then expected to spend a year or more carrying out that research. This is a reasonable approach to experimental research, which requires considerable investment in buying and assembling the experimental apparatus. It is a much less reasonable approach to Shannon-style research, since writing sensibly about uncharted problem areas is quite difficult until the area becomes somewhat organized, and at that time the hardest part of the research is finished.

And yet I did write a doctoral thesis proposal and do have ongoing coordination meetings.  It would be interesting though, if instead of a doctoral thesis proposal document, I had written ongoing doctoral thesis tweets.  We had previously discussed microblogging a little bit, but this ambient awareness concept of Thompson may enable making people aware of what is going on, without having to have meetings, and also let someone like me write about uncharted problems in somewhat unorganized ways.

Although we often thinking of having as many followers as possible as a goal, this may not be the best use of microblogging as a cognitive tool.  As Thompson says [p. 234]:

The lesson is that there’s value in obscurity.  People who lust after huge follower counts are thinking like traditional broadcasters.  But when you’re broadcasting, there’s no to and fro.  You gain reach, but lose intimacy.  Ambient awareness, in contrast, is more about conversation and co-presence—and you can’t be co-present with a zillion people.  Having a million followers might be useful for hawking yourself or your ideas, but it’s not always great for thinking.  Indeed, it may not even be that useful for hawking things.

Perhaps obsurity has some connection to allowing oneself to not do anything too? 

Anway, that was what I wanted to ramble about.  Perhaps I should have scheduled some time with you on Lotus Notes to review things and make sure I had a good plan for this blog post…


One comment

  1. […] The Ultimate Machinists « Scheduling Time […]

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