Two things that slow work down

The work we do, and the way we do it, has a big impact on our self-worth, other’s perception of us, and the extent to which that work contributes to the mission of the organisations we work for.

Over years of work I have noticed two behaviours that slow work down and cause frustration to co-workers and customers.

They are creative inflation and complexination.

Creative inflation is where work is polished, and polished, and polished beyond the any economically reasonable point, and certainly beyond the point that it benefits the customer (from their perspective).

I first heard the term creative inflation during a visit to the BBC in London. I was leading a team looking at their rollout of computer-based editing, as part of Radio NZ’s project to move from tape to digital editing.

One of the radio producers we spoke with wryly said that “radio programmes are never finished, that are abandoned”. What did he mean?

In the past, BBC programme makers had to splice audio tapes together to compile programmes. This is a manual process involving razor blades and sticky tape, and it is destructive. Once you have cut the tape, there is no going back*. Digital editing had opened the way for editors to non-destructively try an infinite number of options. Programme makers would sometimes continue editing, refining and polishing, until the programme had to eventually be pried out of their hands in order to get it to air!

This is an example of the well-known aphorism, perfect is the enemy of good.

As an sound engineer, I once worked with a producer on a serious of eight 30 second radio commercials. It took days to edit these to the standard the producer wanted, from dozens of takes. One ad had over 30 edits. The total cost of producing these spots was $10,000. The customer was happy with the result, but not happy with the cost. It is true that they sounded amazing. It was a high-stakes campaign, and the finished product had a big impact. But based on my experience making hundreds of commercials, less perfect versions would have been just as effective.

This problem has existed among humans for centuries. Leonardo Da Vinci would spend years (or decades) on paintings. He took his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, with him wherever he went, improving and refining the work until his death. This was a problem for commissioned works; his patrons would get very frustrated at the delays, and there was frequent non-delivery resulting in him loosing future commissions.

Knowing when to stop work on something is a hard one, especially when you are in the thick of it. Wanting to have pride in your your work is also a factor. Everyone does have a right to be proud of the work they do, and there is nothing worse than being told to cut corners.

The time to stop is when you are no longer adding value. That is the hard question.

Looking at it from the customer’s perspective, to what extent would they appreciate the extra work? I cannot answer that question for you – it is highly contextual – but once you realise what is happening, at least you have a chance to review and stop.

Are there exceptions? Yes.

Work done on your own time, for your own pleasure is one. Take as long as you want.

The other behaviour is complexination.

A complexinator is someone who overthinks, and over-complicates their work. A good example of complexination is the Rube Goldberg machine – a machine that performs a simple task through a serious of impractical and complicated steps. Google it.

In a workplace, this approach results in work that is too complex and processes that have too many steps. I once inherited a process for transferring two payloads of data to a third party. 14 steps were required for each, taking about 20-30 minutes. Within a couple of days I had reduced this to five steps, taking less than five minutes, and I then worked to get this process automated.

Another example was a weekly reporting process that required information to be copied and pasted half a dozen times between various source documents, and then formatted by hand. It was possible to go back to one of the initial documents, and automatically compile and format the required report, saving half a day’s work.

Some of the these processes are the product of years of accretion as processes are handed down from employee to employee, with the original purpose and reasons for each step sometimes being lost or new ones added ‘because’. In those case it’s useful to map the steps in the process, and look at what is really needed by the customer.

The other source is individuals. This is more complicated to solve as complexination may be a personality trait, or even a badge of honour for some people. It is quite common among ‘smartest guy in the room’ types and is sometimes used as a means to justify respect, salary, and tenure.

I recommend working closely with the person, showing them the impact of the behaviour on their own productivity and their relationships with others. That is simpler to say, than to do.

Be very careful, respectful, and always assume good intent. Be genuinely curious, and open to what you discover. In the end, things may not be as they seemed. A certain process may be required for legal or technical reasons. Be prepared to change your view based on what you learn.

I should note that complexination is distinct from busy work, which is people keeping themselves busy, quite often with work that does not need to be done at all.

* Older broadcasters will know that you can undo splices, and sometimes move splices, but the process is arduous, risky, and rarely worth the trouble.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s