A Business Technology Place

concentration so intense…

One of my favorite things is reading a book and finding a statement that makes me pause and reflect. It’s the highlighter worthy statement. It’s the one I might write about or use to start a conversation with a colleague. It’s a statement the author uses to convey the point of their writing. For me, it’s a statement that feels right because it connects with my own experiences.

It happened today as I was reading Lean Thinking by James Womack and Daniel Jones. Womack and Jones recapped the findings of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi by saying,

“The types of activities which people all over the world consistently report as most rewarding — that is, which makes them feel best — involve a clear objective, a need for concentration so intense that no attention is left over, a lack of interruptions and distractions, clear and immediate feedback on progress toward the objective, and a sense of a challenge.”

At work, I have an ongoing conversation with a few colleagues that the most rewarding department in the company is shipping. The product comes to them and leaves them, piece-by-piece. They check a box, mark it complete, mark it shipped. This is not the type of stimulating work Csikszentmihalyi mentions. But shipping personnel are gaining the sense of accomplishment by starting and completing work without interruptions.

Here’s a challenging situation. Today’s office of matrixed organizations working on multiple projects, makes replicating the experience described by Csikszentmihalyi extremely difficult. I’ve been wrestling with the puzzle of transitioning IT work from batch-and-queue into single piece workflows. Part of that puzzle is finding solutions for how best to keep technology workers satisfied and inspired by their work. Project requests come simultaneously from multiple stakeholders including customers, product managers, and compliance teams. Project requests also originate from events like mergers, acquisitions, facility closures, and company reorganizations. All this results in what I call organizational entropy. It’s very difficult for a professional worker to achieve “a concentration so intense that no attention is left over”.

One way to minimize the number of stops and starts is by level-loading assignments to workers by prioritizing work and regulating the in-take of new work from entering the flow of production. This takes discipline from the managers to see the entire system and to manage with an eye towards uninterrupted work. It requires discipline from the workers not be distracted by upcoming work or work not requested by the customer. If I think about my typical day, I start with a set of defined work tasks for what’s important and due. It takes concentration to complete a task from start-to-finish without pausing to look at emails, new requests, or other project assignments. But when I do stick to the plan and complete the work, I find the work more rewarding.

Picture this – “Concentration so intense that no attention is left over”. Office squirrels might go extinct.

Onward and upward!

What your infrastructure guy wants you to know

Looking for exceptional project leaders.

I have a special place in my heart for project managers. I was once a project manager and yet I still am a project manager. I expect I’ll always need to be a project manager. The skills of a PM are needed outside of the business environment. I use them in everyday life to plan, organize, and execute projects at home.

I previously wrote about the one the biggest challenges of a project manager. They sometimes struggle to find respect in a business setting and have to learn how to earn respect through business acumen and relational skills. When a PM gets the respect of the team they are leading then the project operates with efficiency and smoothness.

But not all projects in the portfolio have a PM. There are more projects than what the Project Management Office has capacity to fill. I’ve noticed projects without a project manager will most likely not get done or will struggle to make progress. That’s obvious right? Yes. It’s easy to reach that conclusion and it’s very logical. I call it Organizational Entropy.

The silent voice in the room.ServerRack

Without someone guiding and leading the team members on project tasks and timelines they are drawn by other competing tasks in the organization and will respond to the loudest voice.

The infrastructure and network team usually get the projects without a PM. I’ve noticed this in every professional position that I’ve served. It’s the software development projects that typically get a PM while the hardware projects are left to the engineers to manage.

Those poor network engineers. They are like the road crews that need to repair, widen, and repave roads. They have to work on weekends and at night when the traffic is the lowest. But they often don’t get someone to help them plan and execute.

This creates a focus problem. The engineers are pulled into changes that the software teams need. They get pulled into break-fix help desk tickets. Then it’s hard to focus and the loudest voice calling them gets the attention. It’s no wonder that many of their own projects fall behind or don’t get done.

What’s the best answer for this? I haven’t been able to answer it yet. Perhaps giving some volume to that silent voice is the first step.

Let me know if you’ve found the answer.

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: Gene Selkov via creative commons.

How management escalation promotes organizational entropy

Previously I defined organizational entropy and how modern organizations evolve to this type behavior through a randomness of work order and completion. Another contributing factor to organizational entropy is management escalation. Let me start by saying that this post is not about bashing the practice of management escalation. Escalation is actually a needed and healthy component of high achieving organizations that have properly empowered workers to achieve the mission of the business.  There are however times when management escalation can disrupt the normal flow of work within an organization which can be disruptive to output. Escalation is random in the sense that its not pre-planned. So when members of the organization escalate issues with the intention of jumping the existing work queue there will be consequences.  The delivery time period of the other work in the queue is disrupted which creates the entropy effect.

What I’m saying is that there is a time and purpose to escalate items to management. Sometimes its for awareness on a particular topic. Often times though, it’s in an effort to get work done in a more timely manner. Here’s a list of negative consequences for organizations that shift work due to management escalation:

Penalizes those who follow the process

There will be times where the business return and value for the escalated item is properly used such that the work should be allowed to jump to the front of the queue. However, there are also times where teams or individuals may abuse the process in an effort accomplish work for their personal objectives or client despite what it means for the overall organization. Unfortunately this means that those who attempt to follow published processes and procedures may be penalized by having to wait longer for their work to be completed.

Opportunity cost from work that is delayed

When management escalation occurs, rarely do decision makers consider the full impact of shifting resources to complete the escalated work. There could be times when the work that is delayed has a higher value to the business than the escalated work.

Doesn’t solve root organizational process issues

In academia there is a notion of absolutes or  “perfect”situations (Economic perfect competition, perfect information, etc.) . This isn’t reality of course, but in the context of a work flow through an organization an attribute of perfect output order is one that processes work in the order of value to the business. In our conversation about organizational entropy and management escalation, this is important because ideally an organization would process the work without requiring escalation.  A need to escalate work for quicker resolution than what the standard processes provides could mean that the standard process needs and adjustment so that future management escalations can be avoided.

Sets precedent for future process avoidance

If individuals or groups see that the way to accomplish work is by escalating to management then others will follow this path. That’s not healthy and only serves to create a more chaotic environment which expands the amount of entropy.

So use management escalation wisely and with reservation. Consider the full cost and if the current system is not working properly then aim to fix it with process adjustments.

Defining Organizational Entropy

I’ve experienced different management styles, cultures, and organizational lay-outs during my professional career in large organizations. Over the years I’ve noticed several attributes of large groups that are present regardless of the organizational design.  One of these attributes is something I’ll call Organizational Entropy. I define this as a measure of disorder or randomness by which work is created within an organization.  In multi-matrixed organizations (found in large companies) this ultimately causes workers to be out of alignment.  This misalignment isn’t necessarily with organizational goals, rather it’s more so a timing alignment with other workers. The main thought is that there is a randomness to how work gets done when resources are assigned (matrixed) to multiple projects. Person A is working on project X and needs person B to help. The problem is person B is working on project Y so person A must wait.

Organizational Entropy

Does your matrixed org chart lead to organizational entropy?

I’ll break this down a little for discussion. Employees in large organizations become matrixed in one or more ways. This might be functional areas,  project assignments, or operational responsibilities. Typically, resources are added to projects but are expected to maintain their current operational responsibilities.  The Project Management Office manages project work but not support work or anything classified as “run the business”.  So ultimately there is a big challenge between project managers and functional managers in the areas of project and support workload for each employee.

In addition, resources tend to be matrixed across multiple projects.   This is where the organizational entropy is present.  When a worker needs to reach out to someone on the same project team, that person is not necessarily working on the same project at that point in time. This is creates a randomness and disorganization to the output for the project because the employee has to wait for the availability of the other employee before completing the task. You can see that in this simple model, both employees are organizationally aligned because they are working on approved projects. But their timing is not synchronized, so the project output is random. Now multiply this by 100, 200, or even more employees. Now think about the complex web of interdependencies that exist within a heavily matrixed organization. That leads to organizational entropy.

Mike Cottmeyer writes about this very issue with a different angle in his post The Problem with Big.  Mike shows how project teams become stressed when members have other competing priorities. This often results in team members becoming more focused on schedules than on the value of their output.  It’s a good read and worth your time.

To close out my thoughts on framing this concept of organizational entropy, I’ll say that it doesn’t prevent organizations from completing work. Life and work within large groups continues to move forward despite inefficiencies in process. In my mind, the challenge is how to make the system more efficient for achieving the desired end goals. I’m interested in your thoughts on this topic. Have you been involved with a company that efficiently split work between projects and run the business activities? Do you have ideas about how to reduce the amount of randomness in organizational output?