Thursday, August 19, 2010

What's your Personal Work Ethic ?

The personal work ethic is a topic I always wanted to write about. Ramnath triggered this piece, by posting a short review of the book, The 4-hour Workweek at the Sai Students Portal. The book is mainly about how you can manage to work only 4 hours a week and amongst others, suggests outsourcing personal tasks. Some discussion ensued and here are my comments at that blog, made out into a post (with a few edits ) here :

I havent read the book, I find the title and theme of the book as described, quite interesting. But I find that the "methods" that he suggests are a bit cliched, just a e-Yuga rehash of the old school lessons of time management, personal efficiency, goal setting stuff talked by a lot of other books.

That apart, the ability to contemplate on why we do what we do and the conflict between what we want (at our ideal level of aspiration) and what we do, is something we lack in our times. What Dritharashtra said in the context of Dharma is also applicable to goals, Jaanami Dharmam Nacha Me Pravritti, Jaanami Adharmam Nacha Me Nivritti..., the gap between knowing what to do and doing it in-deed.

The personal work ethic that each of us bring to the workplace is something that I have always found interesting to observe. How much of what we do is because of the control system that pushes us and how much of it would we do in its absence ? How many hours of work is "right" or "optimal", assuming you want to be just loyal to the contract, not any less or more ? Peter Drucker once said, that the best motivated employee is a volunteer. What is the substantially differentiating basic attitude towards work, between, say a waiter whose opportunity to bring originality to the work is limited, and say, a Google employee who gets to spend 20% on it ?

Why work ? Well, that can be a dangerous question :) . If you deconstruct this too much from the Advaitic angle, you might end up with a fallacious conclusion : Don't work. Which we knew already and we are good at. :) To avoid that, you should start from Gita's premise, that work is inevitable. You can't not work, dude, the software doesnt provide that feature. Given that, and all of us have the same 24 hours, a deep thought on 'Why do I work ? ' can provide custom answers to what satisfies you. It can differentiate achiever from a non-starter, a poet from a mechanic, a saint from a sinner. It can be a basis for the development (or lack thereof) of other qualities like loyalty, dedication, team spirit and ambition. You can find some of these qualities and an amazing work ethic in some workers and simple people, so it may not actually be a function of the money you get. It's probably just a function of what custom answers you form in your mind, after you solve the equation for yourself.

Of course, there are major implications when you institutionalize the optimal work ethic of an individual, because, "market" forces like competition, cost, performance pressure, peer presence etc chip in to make it complex. But probably, the large scale orientation towards metrics and efficiency in modern management, is pushing the individual more and more away from his or her optimal band of work-life balance. As a race, we have moved from success in survival to success in war to success in trade. The common element in those phases has been competition. What's the next dimension of success we will move towards ? And what will that revolve around ?

I also wonder whether people doing one kind of work (say intellectually challenging strategy work ) are any more "busy" than, say, a construction worker who carries bricks all day. We usually think the former kind to be much more "busy" and perhaps "better contributive", "better value-adding" than the latter, but, in terms of the time spent, they both spend the same amount of time (give or take a few hours) on something that they have chosen (or say forced to have chosen) to do. And in most cases as part of a contract. When someone says, I am more busy than you, it's most often untrue, it just means, what I am busy with, has more visibility than what you are busy with. Or, I may have all the time in the world, but that time is not for you. :)

One type of work may be more satisfying than another, depending on what satisfies you. But is one type of work, intrinsically superior/good than another ? Is a painter better off than a conductor, because his work is creative ? If it is, what parameters contribute to its superiority ? Say, "to create a better world", is one such. The person who is at the top of such a company identifies directly with it and probably closer to that vision whereas for the person who is involved three levels down the work hierarchy, it would just be, being a waiter, a job to do for the pay he takes. The reverse is also possible in their attitudes, someone takes to it as carrying a stone (or pushing numbers), and someone else takes to it as building a cathedral. We once spent a whole night loading trucks with rice, clothes and relief material for the victims of the Gujarat earthquake. Oh, we found it very satisfying when the series of trucks were leaving the campus. Why was that ?

I think there are actually very few templates in which majority of us fall in. Very few actually get to do something that is substantially different, creating a new template altogether. Although we often want to claim and feel what we do is somehow "unique", and say so in our marketing brochures and interviews, most of the time it's the same cycle and the same pursuits, with minor variants/derivatives of what we call in programming design as an Abstract Class. Brings me to the thought: how much of programming work is different from plumbing ? You fix one valve and there goes the next, phut. What, we actually use the words like architecture, platform, address, tunnelling and named pipes... :) If you push us a little more, we'll start coming out with software equivalent terms for concrete, steel, emulsion paint, waterproofing and so on.

In every area of work, there is the exciting part, the boring part and the hated part. That exciting, boring and hated tasks come as a package in any vocation is something you may have to live with. Like doing the dishes after the party. For this reason, I have always failed to resolve one of the usual guidelines that personal effectiveness books suggest : Prioritize and ensure you give your time to high value-adding tasks. The fallout of this is that you are forced to categorize a certain set of tasks as low priority, with the effect that they are first ones to get rescheduled or postponed. Over a period of time, these tasks will build up to become critical or requiring immediate attention and graduate to become high priority and then you run to it. Whereas the very buildup should have been averted in the first place if you paid due attention to those seemingly low priority items on a more distributed basis. Cleaning, maintenance, fixing things that dont work, backing up your computer, stitching that button in time and a hundred other little things would be called low priority in a "Value-Time-Matrix" that these books would draw for you. Of course, the rationale is to avoid getting lost in a ocean of little things, but too much focus on high value items only results in escalation purely born out of negligence. At the workplace, everyone tending to high value prioritization can cause defects that are not noticed and people finding their own little ways to cut corners even as they continue to present a nice greeny picture on the high value items.

To be able to give every task its due entails the acceptance of a certain amount of boredom that comes as a package with enjoyable work. Tenacity, thoroughness, exhaustive level of detailing can all turn to boredom, but one may have to go beyond that attitudinal fatigue to be able to deliver good work.

On a personal level, outsourcing comes at a more pinching cost than it does for orgs. In the hostel, there were always two sets of guys, who always washed and pressed their clothes even if they could afford and the ones who outsourced them. I used to find it strange when someone said "I love doing this myself". My favorite outsourcing question used to be : why dont you grow your own paddy ? :) . Hmmm, that explains the success of Farmville ! (and my failure therein).

The famous quote "enjoy what you do and you don't have to work a day in your life" is so cliche now. That also entails a certain amount of re-orienting our attitude towards work, if not opting out of the entire work stream that one may be currently involved in. I think it's a flowery way to encourage those who find that boring and hated components of the package are greater than the exciting part. Either find work that you enjoy or learn to "book" something as enjoyable :) :)

This shouldn't be depressing, however. The point is that, what we think about the work we do and want to do, has a lot to do with how happy we are. Happiness, in a mundane sense, is a function of what we do, why we do and how we do but it's like an ice cream. As long as you get the flavour A you like, you are as averagely happy as another person who liked and got his flavour B.

The ideal personal work ethic would probably be a cross-product of buddhist, protestant and the Gita approaches to work, with collectivist lessons drawn from communism and the achievement orientation drawn from capitalism. Well, that would be NextGen Sociology !!

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Disclaimer: Views expressed in this blog are the blogger's personal opinions and made in his individual capacity, sometimes have a story-type approach, mixing facts with imagination and should not be construed as arising from a professional position or a counselling intention.