Boundless #38: Complexity, Complications & "Makework"
Why is there so much work now?
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❓ A reader question on complexity:
I have found myself saying more and more often (especially over the course of the last couple of months or so) how many of the things we tend or intend to do in a corporate environment actually increase the complexity and actually complicatedness of the work we do (for example by adding further variables that will need to be considered going forward when planning out the sales volumes). This complexity can only (I believe) hinder the work we do, and actually foster tiredness and burnout.
I would be curious to know your take on this (perhaps in your next newsletter or so?)
I dive into this and more in today’s newsletter
#1 Complexity & Chaos: The Limits Of Our Current Models
When I was working at Boston Consulting Group, the firm had recently completed research on complexity:
A BCG study of the internal operations of more than 100 US and European companies found that the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals within organizations had increased by anywhere from 50% to 350% over a 15-year period.
and in the 20% most complicated organizations:
managers spend 40% of their time writing reports and 30% to 60% of it in coordination meetings.
This means that in the most complex organizations, scores of knowledge workers are spending almost their entire time coordinating other people’s work and/or creating presentations to summarize future potential work or current work in progress.
At BCG, I happened to be leading research for the organizational transformation practice and would spend part of my day reading books and research on driving change in complex systems.
What I found in my research was a completely ignored field of research into something called chaos theory. Put most simply, if we look at modern organizations through the lens of chaos theory, we should not look at them as things that can be controlled or “managed,” but adaptive systems.
The role of a manager should not be to control, but to optimize the environment such that internal experiments and competition will serve to keep the system alive. If you want to push it even further an “maximize performance,” you may need to risk riding on the “edge of chaos”
In a clearly written academic paper from Professor Gary Grobman, he summarizes these implication:
“Complexity theory suggests that organizational managers promote bringing their organizations to the “edge of chaos” rather than troubleshooting, to trust workers to self-organize to solve problems, to encourage rather than banish informal communication networks, to “go with the flow” rather than script procedures, to build in some redundancy and slack resources and to induce a healthy level of tension and anxiety in the organization to promote creativity and maximize organizational effectiveness”
The problem with trying to prove that this approach might be better for everyone is the fact that there are very few few examples over the past 50+ years of organizations that have run in this manner.
The more obvious problem is the fact that no one has ever gotten promoted by telling their boss, “I tried to do as little as possible this year to limit the complexity of the system”
We have embrace the mindset of “don’t just sit there, do something”
So we train scores and scores of business leaders to “do something,” we promote people based on the output of their initiatives, we push new CEOs to implement new visions and 100 day plans. We collectively accept that people should pursue jobs that maximize “impact” - a word almost definitely created by consultants for them to make sense of why they are creating so many PowerPoint slides.
Thus the question which has led me to some serious doubt about modern work:
What if a lot of our activity, especially in knowledge work, does nothing but increase the chaos of work and undermine the whole future success of these companies?
As long as a company is growing, it is easy to make the causal mistake that the actions taken in the past year are the cause of that revenue growth. Yet we don’t question if the opposite is in fact true, that the increased activity, initiatives and roles exist to give us a reason why we grow in the first place.
Which brings me to my favorite free consulting advice:
"Don't just do something, sit there!"
#2 A Productivity Paradox
There are two curious trends that follow from this increased complexity
All of the work that is easily measured in terms of output has dramatically increased in productivity while requiring fewer and fewer workers
All of the work that is hard to measure (information workers), has dramatically decreased in productivity while requiring more and more workers
The jobs responsible for showing that productivity front-line workers and/or manufacturing workers should be outsourced, laid off or given less resources are not responsible for their own measurement of success.
Here is an interesting chart from Bullshit Jobs highlighting the increase of information workers:
#3 On Makework & Working To Eat
I was reading this anecdote in a newsletter I follow recently:
During World War II, Nobel laureate Ken Arrow was assigned to a team of statisticians to produce long-range weather forecasts. After a time, Arrow and his team determined that their forecasts were not much better than pulling predictions out of a hat. They wrote their superiors, asking to be relieved of the duty. They received the following reply, and I quote: “The Commanding General is well aware that the forecasts are no good. However, he needs them for planning purposes.”
This is often the nature of modern work. Once a report is created and someone is responsible for making sure it is completed every month, that becomes a certain type of work that might be of little to no value, but is thought of as work that has to be done.
I tried to dig into the origins of the origins of what is called “make-work.” Here is an initial description from the 1880’s:
A big fire devoured a street; "It will make work," I heard my father say; a ship was lost at sea laden with silk, and leather, and cloth; "It will make work," said my father; a reservoir broke jail, and swept the heart of the town away. "It will make work," my mother said; so all human calamities were softened blessings to me; they made "work," and work made wages, and wages made bread and potatoes, and clothes for me.”
-The Radical Review, Chicago, Sept. 15, 1883] Dictionary.com
I believe that we are still making this fundamental leap that our work, no matter if its adding value or not, is required to meet our basic needs.
Yet after several war-time years where 16 million people (yes,really) served in the Army away from the traditional work that were likely involved in previously, proving that we could still feed a nation without everyone having to work, we decided that at the end of the war, we had to still put people to work.
This is fine except we never detached from the idea that we need to work to eat.
I searched google for “makework” and in 1946 there was a dramatic uptick in the word “make-work” in popular culture likely due to the return of so many soldiers who needed something to do, so congress reacted:
In 1946 Congress passed the Employment Act, which declared it the responsibility of the federal government to “use all practicable means” to ensure there were jobs for everyone who was willing to work.
A response typically offered to me when I suggest someone take merely a break from work is simply:
“I can’t just do nothing.”
I sense this is rooted in our belief that we need to work to eat.
What if we stopped making work and started making life?
#4 Reads & Listens
I loved this short article from David Bashevkin on adding failure to our bios:
I am not suggesting a major revolution, just a cute little ploy that might help paint a more accurate picture of living a “sequential” life.
In fact, I’ll start with mine.
David Bashevkin is the Director of Education for National NCSY and is pursuing a doctorate in public policy and management at The New School’s Milano School of International Affairs. He was rejected from the Wexner Graduate Fellowship. Twice.
👉 Boundless Reads #104 - My Weekly Newsletter Of Five Good Things To Read
Past Reads: How Fear Setting Can Help Us Move Forward (Boundless)
This podcast on tribal psychology made me realize how easy it is to take an average person and radicalize them
From the OnBeing podcast with Daniel Kahneman about his new passion of exploring the “noise” in decision making aka more work assessing how little we really should be sure of:
Certainly, that’s the case, but also, the fascinating thing about random error, what I call noise, is that it’s invisible, that we’re not aware of it. We studied an insurance company, and we found that underwriters really didn’t agree among themselves to, I would say, almost a catastrophic degree, in what premium they should assess — to the point they would disagree so much that you wondered why the company bothered to use underwriters. They should be almost entirely interchangeable. And they differ, and their difference is noise. And this is a problem which reduces the accuracy and, actually, reduces the bottom line of the organization. That problem is invisible to the organization. Nobody knew it existed until we pointed it out. That’s my passion these days.
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