Time To Work

When we think about organizations and the teams that comprise them, we typically think in one of two ways. We either consider the specific function of an individual or team, or we think about the management relationships they have.

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But there’s a different lens through which we could view the individuals in an organization. That lens exists in an intersection between the value someone contributes to the organization, and the behaviors that they perform to do so.

Let’s call that the Functional Activity (FA).  The FA is the actual stuff that you must do, and the behaviors that are involved in that.

It might be writing, coding, making phone calls or analyzing data. Without that activity, you can’t create any value. So, if we deconstruct the description of your work down to its behavioral components, it may include any number of FAs. For example, if your function is sales, it may include making phone calls, presenting pitches over Zoom, writing follow-up emails, and meeting people at industry events.

The building blocks of a salesperson’s function, and therefore, value, are these kinds of activities. We can lump many of them into a bucket that might be called “relating”.

Let’s look at a different function –and so a different means of contributing value. Consider a marketing person who must create content. They may write, edit, research, draft, and post.

This is true for all organizations, from non-profits to giant multinationals to mom-and-pop operations. In fact, it’s even true for sole proprietors; the same reality applies to one person switching between FAs, and needing to focus on those distinct FAs. But I have been thinking about it primarily about my own clients. Most of them are high growth, venture funded startups.

They are an extreme case. Their pronounced version of this issue illustrates it well.

VC funded companies are expected to grow extremely fast. That reality makes extraordinary demands on employees. The goals are hard to accomplish. Of course, people realize that when they join the company. But often, the conditions in which people work to reach those goals are not supportive accomplishing those goals.

When we drill down and look at both the FAs of each individual, and the way those contrasting individuals work together, the combination often undermines each team’s ability to perform. In other words, if my FA involves sitting and writing researching, drafting, editing, and composing content.  I may need hours of uninterrupted blocks of time to do that.

That’s also true of people writing code or designing UIs.

Of course, other people within the organization have very different FAs. Someone in sales spends time on the phone, setting up Zoom sessions, going to conferences; generally, in conversations. For the sales team, they can context-switch rapidly. They move from conversation to conversation with ease.

For an HR leader to think deeply and strategize the implementation of a new company-wide system, an interruption can be far more costly. Research shows that it can take up to 45 minutes for some people to regain focus.

Give these conflicting FAs, how can different parts of an organization relate to each other? Do people on different teams truly understand and empathize with the FAs their colleagues need to execute? Without that it’s challenging for any individual to make decisions about how to interact with their colleagues.

It often feels like there is a lack of respect –when in fact there is a lack of knowledge and therefore, empathy.

Building respect and appreciation starts with knowledge.

All of this matters because of a single reality:

Every activity or behavior takes time. Whether a conversation or the coding of a new feature—writing a blog post or setting up a new platform. Having the necessary time often depends on the degree of empathy and respect that colleagues provide. [Tweet this]

We often operate as thought things happen instantaneously. It’s a delusion. Colleagues may couch requests in terms like “it will only take 5 minutes”. But nothing does! Even if a conversation takes only 5 minutes, the time to stop the current activity, get in the mindset if the conversation, and then resume the previous task ALL takes time.

Knowing that the sales team dwells largely in activities that require communication and relating can be relevant to the marketing team. It means making requests for meetings with sales in between critical pitch meetings.

And for engineering to have large blocks of uninterrupted time to code only happens with the cooperation and respect of the other teams who may have different FAs. These degrees of empathy and appreciation will delimit the available time for meetings, questions, or requests.

Every individual and team adds value. Sales does it through relationships that drive revenue. Product does it through deep and collaborative work to create the best version of the product for sales to sell.

Engineering executes and delivers the very reality of product’s vision, creating the service that the sales team sells.  HR makes the lives, work, development, and coordination of every individual possible and fruitful.

They are all critical inputs to the organization’s success, and each has its own FAs. If the sales team’s instinct is to create meetings with marketing or engineers, or to send slack messages, many of which imply urgency, it fragments the engineers’ FA.  Each new message or meeting interrupts the blocks of time needed for deep work.

And you can contrast that in exactly the other direction. When engineers need to solve problems, they resist the need to set up a meeting.  They are trying to defend the blocks of time for their work. That can lead to problems persisting and the organization becoming siloed as some people resist communication.

Without building a connected web of reciprocal understanding and respect for differing FAs, individuals feel pulled in multiple directions. That causes burnout and frustration. People feel unknown and undermined.

The benefit of learning everyone’s FA is that it’s possible to create a structure that supports everyone’s FA.

  • You can bundle meetings on specific days.
  • You can create “no meeting days”.
  • Everyone can schedule “office hours’ during which they are free to be interrupted.

These are just a few ideas.

The goal is to coordinate the organization’s collective use of time to optimize everyone’s performance. That way, folks can get questions answered and problems solved. And those doing deep work can secure the time they need to do so.

But it all begins with the knowledge of the value each team must add and the FAs that make that happen.

Even if you are a sole proprietor, this applies.  When you are doing thoughtful deep work, do you respond to text messages and allow pings from email, text messages or phone calls. As an individual, it takes discipline to shut off alerts and do your deep work –as well as to be present for alerts and not allow other projects to prey on your mind.

That discipline is similar to the rigor an organization needs to create a coordinated structure. But it’s worth it.

Saving people from burnout and securing the time for everyone to succeed and produce outstanding value is a great payoff!

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