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Futzing and productivity

Futzing and productivity

A couple of days ago, my pal Tara Hunt posted a great piece, Futzing as the Future of Work. In it, she discusses the nature of the way she and many others she knows do their work. She describes it as futzing. What she actually means is that she spends a great deal of time during her work engaging in:

the process by which one wanders around without aim, having conversations (with new and old friends), gathering random information, learning ostensibly useless knowledge and avoiding all tasks/duties clear and present

What Tara’s talking about, and what I’ve discussed here on this blog in the past is the difference between busy work and bursty work. It’s a significant component of my WWD colleague, Anne Truitt Zelenka‘s new book, Connect!: Web Worker Daily’s Guide to a New Way of Working.

Tara describes a critical component of this approach as being a knowledge broker. I like this term a lot. I consider myself a knowledge broker; someone who connects the dots, who finds synergies between apparently disparate pieces of information and distils from them the critical nuggets that will add real value to the work I do. I described these people in my presentation at Office 2.0 in 2007, riffing off David Armano’s notions of The Fuzzy Tail, synthesizers and T-shapers.

Now, to a normal business run along traditional lines where busy work (sitting at your desk) is expected, Tara’s approach looks like time wasting. This apparent time wasting is more than a significant factor why so many traditionally managed and run businesses do things like block social networks. They have an expectation that work looks head-down, tail up at your desk for eight hours a day and that the time you spend around the water cooler, or in the café, or networking (whether that’s online or otherwise) is actually not work and not productive.

Of course, those of us who think and work this way know that this work is not time wasting at all, and in fact, can be hyper-productive. And, in small ways in limited locations with understanding colleagues and managers, those of us who are wired to work like this can get away with it without the attendant crises and penalties that go with it (that’s a whole other story, in my case).

I think that for the vast majority of us, working this way, if it’s what we want to do, has to be done under the radar so we’re not singled out by a culture that largely doesn’t understand this approach and still envisions the workday as an Industrial Age factory where attention is focussed and singular, where presence is the measure of value rather than output and where tools and approaches beyond the SOE are simply indications of a non-conformist.

In organisations or localities where the traditional approaches to work are the norm, it’s a long way from taking off. By way of example, I had a conversation with my best friend, Edmund, over the weekend. He works in senior management for one of Australia’s largest banks. We were discussing this sort of work and the direction I want to take acidlabs in terms of offering consulting services to businesses around this kind of work. While he’s totally bought into the value of what people like Tara and I think and do, he’s unconvinced that it could ever work in the organisation he works for. This despite the fact that he accepts that the majority of the people working there are knowledge workers, have inadequate ways of sharing and distributing knowledge, have cultural blocks to information sharing and distribution and have too few edge-case thinkers to be truly innovative.

I want so much to agree with Tara when she describes this way as the future of work, but I think largely that it’s currently only the case amongst enlightened corporations and a number of successful mavericks like Tara who have the ability to broker their approach into a successful business. I think in Tara’s case, it’s a happy synergy of her demonstrable smarts and the place where she does most of her work – San Francisco and Silicon Valley are places where this sort of approach can be done more easily because the sheer mass of people who work this way or understand it is high.

For the rest of us, it’s a case of biding our time, working a little under the radar and hopefully seeking out opportunities where we can demonstrate our value as burstworking knowledge brokers.

Stephen Collins
No Comments
  • Andy Piper
    Posted at 06:57h, 17 January Reply

    I think you’re right to identify the fact that this isn’t as easy as it sounds. I completely identify with the “futzing” that Tara talks about… but I’m fortunate to work for an organisation where it can work for me, and of course it doesn’t always work out.

    I was working on a project recently and said to the project manager that I was concerned that every time she looked at my screen I might have seemed to be looking at blogs and things. She was really cool about it and said that she understood that techies like me can operate in this mode – bursty productivity. However, there’s definitely a culture in some places that doesn’t “get” this. It’s a case of proving how effective it can be, and working beyond the limits of the radar 😉

  • Tim Peter
    Posted at 09:03h, 17 January Reply

    Hi Steven,
    I’m curious about what research folks have done regarding the revenue/profitability per worker of companies using one approach vs. the other. Stormhoek might be one, but I don’t know enough about what they actually do at work. I certainly agree that with the right folks, futzing could produce spectacular results. I just worry that part of it might be wishful thinking among us who simply prefer futzing to work.

  • Stephen Collins
    Posted at 09:13h, 17 January Reply

    Tim, I’m reasonably certain that organisations like Google don’t allow something like 20% time (which is classic futzing stuff) without strong backing. There are more than a few books about that discuss the value of a shift to this working model, but I’d need to go through my bookcase at home to get you a list.

    Guys like Andy, who posted above, have this sort of work allowed for and built into their work at places like IBM, but it’s a way off yet in most workplaces. I think this is a matter of time, though. Business will build maturity around understanding of this work style and it will become progressively more acceptable.

  • acidlabs » Passionate workaholics
    Posted at 09:26h, 17 January Reply

    […] futzing workers of the world, unite! Share […]

  • Tim Peter
    Posted at 11:33h, 17 January Reply

    Oh, sure, throw Google in my face. 😉

    OK, seriously, I support the concept as well. But is Google an outlier or is there enough data across industries to show correlation between this approach and (for instance) return on assets or return on equity? I think selling this into boards of directors or C-levels depends on those kinds of measures.

  • Stephen Collins
    Posted at 17:32h, 17 January Reply

    Tim, Google’s certainly an outlier at present, but I’m seeing more and more employers adding in 1-2 days a fortnight for unfettered work. Certainly, adoption is deeper in the tech, web and software industries at present.

    I too, would get significant benefit from seeing some real cross-industry metrics on measured value around open time and bursty work style acceptance (which I know you’ve discussed at your blog – I’ve read it!).

  • Jasmin Tragas
    Posted at 23:00h, 21 January Reply

    Actually, I have been thinking that web designers, innovators, scientists…all futz and research in one way or another. The designer looks at different images, layouts, colours, concepts, themes, content, purpose, audience etc…and pulls them all together. Without inspiration, new ideas and exposure to fresh approaches, design can become stagnant, stale and dated.

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