In a wonderful meta moment today, I (Jim) was prepping for this post and listening to a talk on Library Futures by Jabe Bloom, the CTO of the Library Corporation. A large part of his talk dealt with complexity in modern life.
None of us can know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills. ~ Henry Jenkins via Jabe Bloom
This was one of Jabe’s slides.
It reminds me of a discussion I had while I was living in DC with a recently retired CIA friend. We were discussing how intelligence was gathered in the past, and how current reality was more complex. Before we had a few, easily defined enemies who behaved according to fairly predictable patterns.
Today, we are working against a more amorphous “enemy.” By definition, the amorphous enemy is less defined. Because it is less defined we know less about it. Because we know less about it, it is more scary. Because it is more scary, it is more stressful.
In short, our enemies have become more complex, unknown, and scary.
This means two very important things.
1. We can’t have one standard response to threats
2. We are going to imagine a lot more danger than is actually there
In our own work, we feel these threats all the time. Too many tasks, too many data streams, too much stuff coming from too many directions. We don’t have time to think, let alone collaborate.
The good news is that we can use Jabe’s quote from Jenkins to deal with this complexity more effectively. And we approach Jenkin’s counsel through Limiting WIP.
In our personal lives, we have the same problem as the CIA. The CIA has too many avenues of input. Too many distractions. And, oddly enough, too many experts. The only way they can solve their problems is through collaboration. The only way they can truly collaborate is to understand their own work and have the capacity for collaboration.
The CIA used to have a linear problem. One, two, three other countries that were potential threats. Now they have an exponential problem. Potential threats that can form, execute, and disband before anyone knows who they are or why they did it.
The CIA cannot solve their exponential problems with the linear problem solving solutions of the past. They cannot rely on solitary agents or even small groups. The organization as a whole needs to collaborate to remain effective.
When I was growing up, I could choose between 4 TV channels, the telephone and maybe a movie at the theater for incoming streaming media. Outside that, I could read a book, magazine, or newspaper. Or maybe I could listen to music on my stereo or Walkman.
At that time, we thought that was a pretty lengthy list. But it was a linear list. I could filter them out simply by walking away from them.
The other day during a lunch with a friend, my Android Phone buzzed non-stop with tweets, text messages, Facebook updates, Foursquare updates, phone calls, and emails. Finally, I shut it off. I had to apply “aggressive filtering” to my lunch. But that was not enough.
The number of distractions we have grows as the number of avenues for distractions grow. Not only that, but – like the CIA fearing more danger than is really there – even when the phone wasn’t vibrating, I was waiting for it to vibrate. Even when I shut the phone off, I could feel it was off and was vaguely worrying I was missing out on something. However, I was able to focus much more intently on my conversation.
When we limit our WIP, we are filtering our work. We are filtering distraction, filtering data sources, filtering complexity. But that is only a temporary solution. Just like if the CIA only focused on one hot-spot, they could focus, but they would be ignoring everything else. But their collaboration would mean nothing if there weren’t sub-groups actively focusing on specific tasks.
In this case, we want to limit our WIP so that we can focus in the service of becoming very aware of what we are doing, what we are not doing, and why. This lets us know, very well, what we know so we can begin to pool our resources and combine our skills. In our increasingly complex world, our role as individuals is changing. There’s too many things going on at once for any of us to take in, process, and act on.
When we limit our WIP, we are recognizing that we can either pay attention to some things with great effectiveness, or we can pay attention to many things with little effectiveness. If we choose the first path, we are creators, if we choose the second path, we are consumers.
Lastly, when we limit WIP and calm our own complexity, we are better able to find others to collaborate with, to add our unique value, and to create stronger teams. As we collaborate, we learn more about other disciplines and find ways to incorporate that learning our future work.