Knowledge Work and the Metric Black Hole


Black Hole NASA
One of the books on my reading list for 2016 was a choice because of its focus on something that is extremely rare and thus much more valuable when achieved — mastering the art of learning complicated things quickly, and operating at a high skill level.

Reading Deep Work: the Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport contributes to becoming more aware of the value of creating uninterrupted stretches of time on which to focus on one question, task, or problem and develop the skills to transform the potential into tangible results people value.

First some definition. Newport's deep work hypothesis is:

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

This is likely obvious for many if not most people. However, seeing it in its simplicity does not make it easy to do or to commit to long term. This is for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with the fact that doing something deliberately and sustaining it long term to accrue the benefits over time is hard. It is harder still when we consider intangible work like knowledge work.

Reward what gets measured

Is something we often hear in corporate environments. Especially in the U.S. measurement of everything is part of the culture — for example, how sports are played yard by yard, or inning after inning.

We measure everything, and yet we fail to measure two critical things when it comes to the majority of our work today: 1.) We don't tally the cost of using resources on one thing rather than another; 2.) we are not so good at knowing the impact in lost productivity of making trade-offs with attention.

Further, what makes it harder to figure out what matters most in a techno-centric culture is the message enclosed within the positive “Yes We Can” spin that “Yes We Should,” when we have not really figured out if indeed that is the case.

In business, the big trend for several years has been that because we have the technology at our disposal, we should be “always on.” Says Newport:

big trends in business today actively decrease people's ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, and more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work (e.g., the ability to learn hard things fast and produce at elite level).

The other misconception is that open office and space are better for knowledge work than having the ability to concentrate in a quiet corner, maybe even close a door for a couple of hours, to work on big problems. Perhaps what happens is that we measure what we intend to reward.

Newport describes an experiment conducted by Tom Cochran, CTO at Atlantic Media, of which he blogged about, to determine the cost of email. In his article at Harvard Business Review email is not free, Cochran gets to heart of the difficulty in measuring the cost of being available by email vs completing other work. He says:

Anecdotally this clearly affected our company’s efficiency, but we had all the data points to calculate the bottom-line financial impact. By calculating average typing speed, reading speed, response rate, volume of email, average salary, and total employees, we were looking at a seven-figure price tag to quantify our email pollution. A “free and frictionless” method of communication had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet. Each individual email ate up 95 cents of labor costs.

Yet the solution, back in 2013, seemed to be different technology. To get back to the measurement question, Cal Newport says:

as knowledge work makes more complex demands of the labor force, it becomes harder to measure the value of an individual's efforts.

[…]

We should not, therefore, expect the bottom-line impact of depth-destroying behaviors to be easily detected. As Tom Cochran discovered, such metrics fall into an opaque region resistant to easy measurement — a region I call metric black hole.

The question of measurement is important in business because deep work goes counter the prevailing culture that has been trending in recent years. Even when it is hard to measure the impact or cost of those organizational habits, inertia wins.

Inertia wins and takes its toll

Newport calls it the principle of least resistance, which he defines:

In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

Because it is hard to change our habits, and especially hard to change our minds as willpower is in short supply and we tend to rationalize the path of least resistance. Says Newport:

If email were to move to the periphery of your workday, you'd be required to deploy a more thoughtful approach to figuring out what you should be working on and for how long.

[…]

The Principle of Least Resistance, protected from scrutiny by the metrics black hole, supports work cultures that save us from the short-term discomfort of concentration and planning, at the expense of long-term satisfaction and the production of real value.

Real value and its production are critical in every industry, every company size, stage of growth, and so on. Something we often fail to consider and/or vet is the clarity of our goals — how we are going to measure them so we know how we're doing as we do the work, and the communication surrounding them, especially the feedback.

A concrete sense of accomplishment

Which leads to the crux of why deep work is important to us as human beings — it provides a concrete sense of accomplishment. We get ourselves done through work and seeing the physical manifestation of what we have done — for example, building things, painting, doing something physical — contributes to our sense of being functional.

The opposite of building is busying. Cal Newport calls it busyness as proxy for productivity:

In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knpwledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

In other words, work theater. Mastery takes time and we have become accustomed to instant results, just add water. What is the answer to the question: Does your business make high value work?

+

Deep Work carries an important message to a ready audience. Last conversation we had with Cal Newport, who notoriously guards his time jealously and is not on social networks (also for that reason,) had more than 600 participants. Deep work is meaningful at a very personal level and now more than ever with the constant mergers, layoffs, cliffs, and lack of engagement people experience working in companies, work is personal.

This is an easy book to read, not as easy one to do. Yet it is a book that needs doing, awareness alone will wear off quickly along with the strongest willpower. Newport provides many tactics and resources to get started and find a way to make it work.

 

[image credit: NASA/ESA and G. Bacon/STScI]