Overwhelming: Part 2

Yesterday’s post on the overwhelming nature of modern work pressures and the need to focus on the effectiveness of work has triggered a lot of discussion. It might be a signal of an issue. Here are some of the additional ideas to help make work more effective that have risen from that discussion.


Abraham Lincoln was once asked how long a man’s legs should be. He replied “Long enough to reach the ground.”

Feeling overwhelmed is a loss of perspective. The best response is to ensure that you are well grounded in an understanding of your position. Too narrow a perspective can enlarge issues and problems. Trying to solve for too much can put success out of reach.

Focus on the now. Let go of the baggage of the past. Hold of the expectation of the future. Do now what you need to do now based on your real circumstances and the needs of this moment.

Symptoms and Systems Awareness

“The system is not broken. It is working perfectly as intended”

Are you sure the issues you are addressing in your work aren’t just symptoms of the way the system works? You can waste a lot of time working to put bandaids on symptoms when the root cause is the need for a larger change. Take the time to understand the how and why of the systems that surround your work. Perhaps there might be a different systemic change that can remove a whole category of work.

The Danger of Volatility

System performance is volatile. There are external and internal factors we can’t control. Laurie Hibbs reminded me yesterday that one of the factors driving the overwhelming feeling at work is when underperformance panics arise.  We ignore volatility that results in outperformance, but any failure to make target triggers a whole set of initiatives and actions to address the perceived crisis. A red performance metric sets off a five alarm fire response from management fire fighters. Some times we are just chasing the shadows of system volatility.

We also need to dig beneath averages. Many times the work we are set is to address and average problem. This average may reflect be no real situation. Addressing the average with work can create even bigger problems that need to be addressed.

80:20: Filter for Effectiveness

A simple example of the danger of averages is the Pareto Principle: 80% of an output in a system is derived from 20% of the input. When we are overwhelmed, we are often trying to deliver 120% of the inputs and we are deep into the territory of declining returns, if not counterproductive effort. Focusing first on the 20% that delivers an outsize return is a key filter for personal effectiveness of our work.

Your Personal Filters: Personal Knowledge Mastery

Jon Husband highlighted that Harold Jarche’s Personal Knowledge Mastery is a key set of practices to help individuals to better manage the flow of information across the networks. I have listed PKM as one of the four key future of work practices and I could not agree more. If you want to get specific on how to better respond to filter failure, you cannot go past Harold’s work.

Agile Backlogs

Kylie Long pointed out that the table story from the last post reflects an Agile product management backlog. That’s exactly right. Agile backlogs work because they leverage a Kanban model. We can only do so much at a time and we need the ability to adapt the plan to what is the best in the circumstances now. Put your to do list in a table or a tool like Trello and treat it like a backlog for the satisfaction of seeing the progress and the clarity of what you need to do today. Adapting the demands of work to the needs of the situation is far easier when you have the clarity of a backlog.

Reflection and discussion of better way of working is a key part of helping make your work more effective. A day’s worth of conversation and reflection has highlighted even more ways to help your work be more effective.  What would happen if you did that every day?

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