Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thoughts on Reading Rework

This past week I read Jason Fried and David Hansson's Rework on my iPhone. In retrospect, I think this is a book better purchased in book form: it's the kind of book you want to leave on your desk to start conversations. The useful and entertaining book argues that many of the standard practices in business are misguided, and provides examples to underscore this point.

To give you a flavor for the book, you might watch Jason's talk. There the emphasis falls on the problems with meetings and managers. Now, I think it is obvious that there is a role for both of these within a corporation, but Jason's point seems to me correct: they are overused, and often serve as crutches for poor management skills. For one thing, meetings take a lot of time out of the productivity of an organization. The time should be multiplied by the number of people participating. A meeting between 10 people for one hour takes 10 hours of productivity out of the organization. Understood this way, one should ask whether the goal of the meeting is worth this significant expenditure before scheduling it. In many cases a meeting could be avoided by having short exchanges in the hall, or reducing the number of people attending. This not only saves the company money, but may actually enhance employee morale. Employees have long complained about how meetings are a waste of time, and from my experience I would agree these complaints are often warranted. The low rate of information exchange alone underscores this fact.

As for managers, Jason has similar arguments. The main argument in this case comes from the way managers can interrupt the flow of thought. One simple check-in on an employee who is engaged in a project that requires concentration is often enough to put that process back 10 minutes. If enough of these interruptions happen throughout a day, then work can almost come to a stand-still. Of course, as is the case with meetings, there are places and times for these types of interruptions. I have had employees work for me from time to time who actually needed to have interruptions to stay on task, but I would say out of 100s of people I've worked with only a handful fell into this category. Most employees are motivated to do their work, and they just need to have the resources and opportunity to succeed.

How would a post-meeting/manager company function? It would rely more on passive modes of communication throughout the day. The advantage of passive communication is that it doesn't necessarily interrupt the workflow: people can respond to an e-mail at the time of their choosing. Employees should also be given enough ownership of their tasks that they can feel genuine entrepreneurial excitement. Managers' roles are to inspire employees and provide enough structure that the goal and requirements of a task are clear. If you add to this mix an enthusiastic workspace filled with employees who can be trusted to do good work, and such a well-run company would surely succeed.

Meetings and managers are often described as necessary evils. But why should anything evil be necessary? Far better to minimize interruptions so that when you do get together meetings and managers become necessary goods.