Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Now I know it isn't just me...

For years, I used to joke with my co-author Mauricio Drelichman that the best way to make progress on our papers would be to sit in the office, take another office chair, push it hard against one's kneecaps, and then force oneself to be immobile for the next 4-10 hours. That's what being on an airplane is like, and these days I get a phenomenal amount of work done in flight. Give me a good run to Vancouver, where Mauricio works and lives, and we can put a major revision of one of our papers to bed. What exactly is it? I think it's partly the absence of disruptions - no phone calls, emails, nobody "just dropping by", no regular seminar or lunch appointment. Three times 1.5 h is much less productive than 4.5 h uninterrupted. I think it's also the sheer discomfort. The only way to mentally disconnect from one's miserable surroundings (let's be honest, where is the delight suggested by glamorous airline ads in being stuck in metal tube re-breathing the same air?) is to focus on something else - in this case, work.

Fresh from the New York Times comes the news that there may be another reason why this works, for some - the feeling that one is about to run out of battery power focuses the mind on "just get it done". Sir Raymond Carr, the master of my old college in Oxford, always gave the same advice to incoming Ph.D. students - just write. And doing that seems much easier for Simon Sinek when the battery indicator is slowly crawling towards zero -- see "Fly Me Anywhere, I Just Need To Work". Maybe, enterprises and academic departments should contain "productivity rooms" where we deliberately replicate the misery of airline travel, at what would surely be a low cost. In case of a sudden loss of concentration, masks will automatically... no, let's not take it that far.

Incidentally, Sinek is working on a book that emphasizes the importance of explaining intent to providers, employees, etc. I haven't seen the manuscript, but I hope he points out the analogy with what the German army called Auftragstaktik -- which involved explaining the point of a mission to humble sergeants and privates, so that they could make decisions on the fly about how to best adapt the means to the purpose of the whole exercise. It made for great combat efficiency, and I always thought it odd that an undemocratic country with a pretty authoritarian culture should evolve such a tactic, while the armies of Western democracies in WWI and II mostly believed in often bizarre micro-management, mostly with disastrous effect. The best book on this and other aspects of military HR I have ever read is Martin van Creveld's Fighting Power (a comparison of the US and German armies in WW II).

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