It’s easier than ever to communicate with colleagues. And yet, that doesn’t always make us more efficient.
In fact, just the opposite happens.
I experienced this recently while working on a project for my company, Morphic Therapeutic. Our facility is located on the AstraZeneca campus, and it has a pretty stunning auditorium inside. We’ve been considering having a TedX conference there for a while.
The conference is in June, and the fantastic and highly capable AstraZeneca team wanted to set up a website for it. We had a meeting to discuss putting up the website, and things immediately became more complicated than necessary.
I told them, “Just give me everything you want to put on the website in one shot. I’ll take care of getting the site up.”
People were dumbfounded.
It was like I had just said something truly shocking. They told me, “No, we can’t do that. We don’t have all the content together right now. We’ll just give it to you as we put it together. And we need to be able to change it on the fly.”
And that’s when it really hit me. We’ve reached a new way of working. Projects are now handled in a piecemeal manner. People decide what they’re working on by the order of the emails in their inbox.
It’s gone beyond multi-tasking. We’re spending our days in an entirely distracted state, leaping from one thing to the next without a true plan of action.
Our standard of work is now completely ad hoc
In my previous job, there was a Board member who was older than most of us by decades. And he came right out and told us, “I’m never going to get all this new technology right.”
He was right. We actually kept a fax machine around for him to use until he retired. He had never touched email.
Sometimes, I used to ask him at board dinners, “Don’t you think things were less efficient in your day?”
I mean, it’s hard for us to even imagine writing out a memo and then physically transporting it somewhere else. That sounds ludicrous now.
But oddly enough, he felt work actually used to be more efficient than it is today. I know that seems like a bold thing to say—and I’m not suggesting we go back to 1970s technology—but I do think he had a point.
When the cost of communication is high, you take the time to make sure everything is right. When the physical memo is being taken somewhere and passed around, there’s no time for revisions, edits, or iterations. What you send is what people see.
Communication has become cheap. It costs nothing to send an email or a few Slack messages. Even when you send those messages, you can easily undo or edit the text. And because of that, people no longer feel their message has to include something momentous. It doesn’t have to be thorough and thought out. They don’t have to give someone all the necessary information at once.
They can just send along each piece as they receive it from someone else.
The chain of communication has become massively inefficient
I used to think if I walked into a company and saw buzzing activity, that meant it was an amazing, hardworking, and exciting company. That’s surely a sign of a company that is going places. Now, I see all that buzzing and ad hoc communication, and it strikes me as downright inefficient.
Communication feels like work. You can spend your entire day answering emails and still feel exhausted in the evening. You feel like you’ve put in an entire day of work, when in reality you’ve just been reacting to messages other people sent you.
And there are downsides to operating that way. You aren’t doing work that really moves anything forward. Larger projects take longer and longer as more time is spent sifting through and responding to communications from other people.
You don’t have to work that way
Reaction is your default setting. But getting yourself out of that default mode takes structure and planning.
Structuring projects requires more work, but it’s more efficient
Doing something is not always better than doing nothing. The quality and efficiency of what you’re doing matters.
Taking the time upfront to structure a project, your weekly schedule, or your daily routine requires more effort than taking things as they come. But the reward is a greater sense of control and efficiency. The level of communication can even be a marker for how well things were thought through up-front.
Structuring processes also cuts down on things most people tend to complain about, like meetings. When information is doled out piece by piece, many meetings are required to continually update people on the iterations.
But if you carefully structure a project, you’ll find that you really don’t need most meetings. People have everything they need to get the work done. They understand their part of the project as it relates to the whole.
Regardless of the new means of communication at our hands, discipline, organization, and focus are still the most effective tools for getting things done. We don’t have to go back to fax machines, but we should take advantage of “silent mode” more often if we want to do work that makes an impact.