The Surprising Power of Work to Rule

Knowledge work is not a production line. Don’t expect linearity of time and output. Working flexibly can have surprising benefits for productivity.

Most people equate work time with progress. That’s not always the case

Rick Rubin, Tim Ferris Podcast

Through my career, I’ve found one extraordinary thing. When I apply ‘work to rule’, I am more productive. ‘Work to rule’ in this context isn’t the traditional union process of strict compliance and bureaucracy often for leverage and to point out the discretionary work. My version of ‘work to rule’ is focusing on only the absolute minimum demands of work and only the necessary meetings. It is strict compliance with performance outcomes and elimination of discretionary efforts. All the other time soaks and stress makers are ignored or deferred. Only the most essential work remains to be tackled in a surprisingly leisurely way.

The benefits of this version of ‘work to rule’ are many:

  • perspective: so often when I step away from stressed out busy work I find a better path to achieve my goals. I see things that I hadn’t when I was so tied up on the dance floor.
  • focus: choosing what matters most and what is necessary is an act of focus.
  • thinking time: creativity requires room to explore and iterate that can be lost in continuous work pressures
  • other influences: mixing influences can be powerful and provocative. You don’t get that in the same meetings with the same people all the time.
  • collaboration: deep collaboration needs time, space and the right mood. You need to get beyond transactional relationships and simple quid pro quo to be transformative.
  • risk taking: when our lives are full we play safe, after all surely all this work is enough. When we step away, we see bigger bets to make.
  • mood: ignoring the urgent but unimportant can feel cheeky, rude or even like wagging. Plus the space allows time for self-care. All act as little fillips to the mood every time.

Knowledge work is not a simple linear function of time. It involves complex interplays of relationships, information and inspiration. You need to foster a work pattern that allows for the space to benefit from those interplays. ‘Working to rule’ might just provide that space.

The Infinite Scroll

Everyone is busy all the time. We have made busyness performative, an impression of success and an entertainment for busy minds. Because our busy often involves others we have made busy virally engaging. We are trapped in an infinite scroll.

Scrolling for success

Infinite scroll has been a boon for engagement in social and other apps. Our desire for entertainment and activity is satisfied by an endless algorithm of content to consume and share. We can feel satisfied with our use of time even if nothing meaningful or even pleasurable happens. We are up to date. We are engaged.

Our workplaces are full of many similar infinite scrolls. Email is treated as work and email warriors spend hours battling towards inbox zero by turning each email into multiple more. Chat products now offer the same infinite scrolling options and lots of dopamine hits. You can consume hours pinging away in Microsoft Teams, Slack, Whatsapp and more.

This is a day when I covered no ground.

Just pushed and shuffled my papers around,

Margaret Fishback, Busy Day at the Office

Meeting calendars are another infinite scroll. I am busy if my day is full of meetings even if nothing is achieved in those meetings but more work and more emails. Seeing people doing their emails in meetings is the ultimate crossover. I’m so busy I don’t have time to do anything properly.

Conversations full of status updates are another infinite scroll. Look I am so busy I will tell you how good I am. We won’t actually interact, ask questions, solve problems, we will just report busyness. How many one-on-one meetings and team meetings are lost to the performance of busy.

As productive and as important as all this activity feels, like infinite scroll, it gets in the way of the real work and the real engagement. Customers are frustrated. So many people complain that the real work only happens when the meeting and emails stop in the evenings, at lunch or on weekends, taking away from valuable living time.

Turn off the email and the chat. Abandon inbox zero. Leave status to reports. Walk out of the meeting when the work is done. Pick up the phone and have a real conversation. Escape the infinite scroll.

To perform it repeatedly, to perform it each time

as if the first, to walk the dim corridor believing that

the conference it leads to might change everything,

to adhere to a possibility of reward, of betterment,

Timothy Donnelly, The Cloud Corporation

PS: I understand the irony of adding one more thing to your infinite scroll with this post. Now do the work.

Flooding the Landscape

The strategy for manipulation of media used to be simple ‘flood the information landscape’ with your message. Manipulate the news cycle and place your disinformation in the centre of the media conversation and you will shape opinion in your favour.

During 2022 there were hopeful signs that this model is starting to breakdown or at least be open to countering strategies. In various elections, in Ukraine, and in lots of clumsy government propaganda efforts, countering voices closer to the truth held up their end of the debate.

For corporate communication professionals there is a lesson in these failures. Many of the techniques of corporate communication have depended on their control of the information landscape. It was easy for corporate communicators to ‘flood the landscape’ and hard for other voices to compete, especially when combined with cultural pressures against speaking up. Put together a fancy video, email from leaders, post on the intranet and add in some posters and you will be no longer be fine.

What is changing to weaken the power of the flooding strategy?

  • Fragmentation and Distrust of Mainstream Media: the continuing collapse of media’s influence and its fragmentation weakens the ability to dominate discussion. Is there really a 24 hour media cycle to win now that much is online? Who believes an email or press release as a source of truth?
  • Manipulation savvy: We are more savvier to the more blatant efforts at manipulation, especially in younger generations who are the consumers of the media most susceptible to influence. We are learning to recognise and loathe spin. Even the real ‘fake news’ of false images and videos are now deconstructed quickly by online sources.
  • Countering Voices: The bar on producing countering voices is so low that any phone is a capable production video suite. Manipulative messaging can be easily undone with video, podcast discussion and other deconstruction.

The challenge for corporate communicators as these trends enter the corporate information landscape is to find new strategies to share messages and influence debate.

  • Conversation: No communication is once and done. Allow for and plan for discussion and conversation. Invite it as a learning exercise and foster the fact checking and understanding that will ensure that countering views are subject to the same scrutiny.
  • Avoid Explanation through Engagement: The old adage of ‘if you are explaining you are losing’ also comes from a model where solutions are presented complete. Co-design helps employees engage with the changes and the compromises in the process
  • Leverage all the tools: use social communication from a wide range of voices, use your social collaboration platform, use video in multiple ways, particularly to share the voice of your employees discussing the changes.
  • Be Genuine: Trust in 2023 is fragile. Be consistently genuine and real in your communications. Call out the weaknesses and trade offs.

Organisations want capable employees who can make the most of their information to do great work. No organisation wants drones who blindly follow propaganda. Take that into account in how you plan corporate communication and help your employees to learn.

Work For It

When generous, she gave a look that told a lesson,

taught me how to read the world in what goes unsaid.

Kyrsten Hill, A White Man in the Audience Said I Owed Him

The System doesn’t owe you anything. Odds are the system is actually working its hardest against you. So, do the work until you get what you want

We all have the feeling we are owed something from time to time. We have worked hard, struggled and put in the time. Maybe it feels like you have done the work. Maybe it feels like it is time. Maybe it feels like we are owed a reward for our efforts.

Sadly, life doesn’t work that way. Even if you have been explicitly told that you are owed, don’t count on it. Things change. Surprises happen. Entitlement hurts hopes.

Do the work to get what you want. Keep pushing and working to remind yourself and others that you deserve it. Success comes from your efforts or dumb luck. The best way to have luck is for it to ‘find you working’ to paraphrase.

It’s never time. Keep working.

   I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,

   and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.

Everyone silent, moving. . . . Take my hand. Speak to me.

Mariel Rukeyser, Effort at Speech Between Two People

2023: The Theme of the Year

In 2022, I set out with an intention of exploring Flow. That intent did not last. There were parts of the year where from exhaustion or desperation I went along with the flow, but for much of the year the graceful transitions or the purposeful rewards of flow were beyond me. Too much of 2022 was hanging on with grim determination.

What we remember of love is starlight

W.S. Merwin, To the Parting Year

As I pondered a theme for 2023, my first thought was Choose. However, my inspirations crumbled, not a good sign for a year long theme, and as a theme, choose felt too insistent and consumerist. For a while, I considered ‘Get Real’, a reminder to base myself securely in reality, avoid propaganda and to turn away from the unnecessary and overly demanding. A year in which I could let those with unreal expectations have a dose of 1980s teen repartee.

However, something more creative and generative appealed to me as a theme. If you’ve followed this blog, poetry has been a theme since 2020. Poetry will weave itself into the year no matter what. My job is to find more cause to experience and share it. As Poetry is here it is not the theme but might lead on to it.

I love a novel take. There no value in repeating what everyone else is doing or saying. What I value more is the twist, the surprising insight, the people who don’t follow the flow but turn away to find something magical that was hidden there all along underneath. That turn takes an ability to see something different and special and the choice to bring it about.

That turn is also a key part of a knot. Take a cable turn it upon itself and find something new. Knot bring together the all the many threads we have been carrying. Knots that tie us together and connect us in a community.

At a time when tired patterns are repeating themselves, it is time to make ‘hope and history rhyme’. We need to break out and go another cleverer and better way before the end. In a world obsessing with the power of large language model driven pattern recognition, it is time to embrace the novel twist.

But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy

But hang on here while we make the turn

into the final six where all will be resolved,

where longing and heartache will find an end,

Billy Collins, Sonnet

So borrowing from a sonnet, we flip in the end to another message, my theme of 2023 is Volta.

Volta: Italian word for “turn.” In a sonnet, the volta is the turn of thought or argument

Poetry Foundation

The volta marks a shift from the main narrative or idea of the poem and awakens readers to a different meaning or to a reveal in the conclusion of the poem.

Poets.org, Volta

And now—unwittingly, you’ve made me dream

Of violets, and my soul’s forgotten gleam.

Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, Sonnet

May you have a happy, prosperous and productive 2023. If it’s anything like the last three years we can expect a twist in the end.

The Power of ‘No, Thank you’

my god all the days we have lived thru


not this

one, not this,

not now,

not yet, this week

doesn’t count, was lost, this month

was shit, what a year, it sucked,

Olena Katlytiak Davis, Not this

As 2023 approaches alarmingly quickly we are thrown into what can only be described as the resolution and list season. I will duck the temptation to share with you a list. I have however in recent years been exploring boundaries and it has brought to the fore for me the simple power of saying no.

No is the ultimate boundary enforcer. No indicates definitively that you are drawing a line. Boundaries are no boundaries unless they are enforced. Consistently saying no is the best way to know that your boundaries are working.

No allows room for counteroffers and changes, but it states a definite intent to decline as the starting point of the negotiation. Why not start any negotiation with your strongest hand?

Don’t worry about what you might lose, what others might think or the status involved in what you are declining. You are saying no for good reason, for a boundary you wilfully chose. That’s something worth fighting for. What you won’t do is as important, if not more so, as what you will.

I added ‘Thank you’ not just for politeness’ sake. I added thank you because the most insidious threats to your boundaries are those you actually want – the flattering, carefully crafted, tempting assaults upon your will. These threats demand politeness and gratitude to reflect how well crafted they are. Then they must be turned down like any other. The more exuberant your thanks the better it works to acknowledge and move on from manipulation.

We are accustomed to think of No as abrupt and potentially impolite. However the whole point of boundaries is to avoid being obliging for its own sake. No is clear and an unequivocal statement of your needs. Not acknowledging your boundaries and your needs is the height of rudeness (unless otherwise excused by some extreme life threatening emergency). The thank you is also a softener for our sensitive souls.

We have boundaries and we say no because time is limited. Choices have consequences. Every unnecessary choice harms our ability to do what matters more. Boundaries help contain the demanding, the ungrateful and the rude. Spend your time on what and with whom you prefer. That’s the only way to get the most from 2023.

So in 2023, when you get that queasy feeling, say ‘No, Thank you’ without further thought. Then dedicate your time and energy to what really matters.

I thought I had lost myself,

but I see it’s you that’s gone missing.

Elaine Equi, No other

The Real Work

Wendall Berry

Confusion is a signal of value. Complexity, not simplicity, is where we need to focus our work. The predictable is mundane and probably should be automated. Surprise yourself with discomfort. The real work is beyond the routine.

In the modern workplace, anything capable of predictable routine is a target for automation. As automation becomes more sophisticated at pattern recognition it can even take on basic tasks of content creation, look at ChatGPT. Harold Jarche has been for some time calling out this changing work landscape with his continuum.

Harold Jarche’s framework for changing work

Edges are more beautiful than anything-
Edges Where the quiet deep shallows into loveliness, Where the clouds feather to wavering silver,
And color kisses its brighter self.

Henry Bellarman, Edges

As we grapple with this world of work, human adaptability to change is where our best work will be found. We need to lean into that discomfort as Fiona Tribe indicates. We need to seek it out. It is a signal of the value we can bring to make new change, to solve hard problems or to unravel uncertainty.

The focus on work being a domain of increasing complexity and challenge also means we need to take care. Relentless pressure to solve, to change and to create can become overwhelming. Whether caring for ourselves or our colleagues, we need supportive workplaces and leaders who support people to perform in challenging environments. As work becomes less about fungible widget employees, we need leaders to be more than command and control robots.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life   

And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith, Not Waving but Drowning

Our real work starts in the grey and at the edges. When the road, the guidance and the rules run out we are ready to start. As Wendell Berry highlights ‘the impeded stream is the one that sings’. The greatest rewards in work are not doing the easy repeatable things but overcoming blockages and making one’s own mark on an important challenge.

We may long for the comfort and routine that one defined predictable work. However, those times have changed for good. Our best most challenging work is beyond the routine. Embrace the wonder, the confusion and the creation that comes from transformative change.

Thanks to Dr Maya Popa for sharing the Wendell Berry poem that prompted this meditation and supplied the image of the poem above.

Fintech Chatter Podcast

NAB Outside-In Conference Podcast on Fintech Chatter

A great conversation with Stevie-Ann Dovico, Dexter Cousins and I to discuss what makes great product teams in fintechs and larger financial services organisations. I share some of the experience of bringing LanternPay into HICAPS and how we are delivering to customer opportunities and leveraging the best of both worlds.

Little Gestures

The hundreds of little things
Which beat against the heart,
Were meant so. Like the tapping of spring rain, They batter us down gently
With their music

Nancy Flowers, Little Things

We love to celebrate the grand gestures, but success in life is made up of thousand of little gestures executed over years.

Last week someone shared that I had inspired their career choice over a decade ago. When they saw me talk with passion about the work I was doing, they wanted to give it a try and they have done so ever since. Importantly that wasn’t a speech or a sales pitch, some grand gesture. The conversation was an everyday work meeting. Small gestures have big ripples.

As we go about our careers, we obsess about the big gestures – promotions, speeches, awards, deals won. However, our reputations and are social capital are built on the little gestures – everyday conversations, acts of help, how we behave when things are tough, how we treat people in the little moments. These small gestures have an outsize impact because they matter less. Everyone knows people can put on a show for the big moments but what you do i. little moments says far more about who you are.

Little change repeated daily as a practice is far more likely to generate sustainable change and at greater scale than any big shift. Celebrate the little gestures of others to give them encouragement. Put your own into practice.

those delicious possibilities
sweeten each small
gesture of goodbye. Each anonymous, misplaced smile.

Elizabeth Libbey, The Gesture

This Strange Intimacy

With hearts good and happy, making
Life’s old hurt leave off its aching-

Hearts that crave no other’s pleasure,
But the days by duties measure;

Antonio Nicos Blanco, Intimate Prayer

Pervasive social media can generate a strange intimacy. Without any effort, as simply as opening an app, we can be thrust into participants in the daily adventures of others. We know and follow the daily duties of strangers. We share their meals, the adventures and their emotions for better and for worse.

This intimacy makes us more vulnerable to the intrusions of trolls, the obsessive and the vexatious. The sharing we experience as a deepening of connections can be weaponised against us. Intimacy can be turned to make barbs cut deeper. This intimacy can also be used to spread mis-information and suck the unwary into frauds, manipulation, and conspiracy theories.

The profound intimacy of lyric poetry makes it perilous because it gets so far under the skin, into the skin.

Edward Hirsch, The Immense Intimacy, The Intimate Immensity

Social media’s intimacy is getting deep under our skin. Linkedin hacks our perceptions of careers and success. Instagram hacks perceptions of lifestyles, fashions, food, imagery and body image. Tiktok plays with music, dance and trends. Twitter and Facebook manipulate stories, images, information, relationships and politics.

We can use social media to find our unique tribe. To find people who speak so to our heart that we clasp near strangers to our chests as long lost companions. We can find people with whom we share an unbelievable intimacy because of unity of mindset, interests, networks, and passions. We can deepen ourselves into the intimacy of our own unique bubble.

Whether this intimacy is good or bad is not determined by the platform. The choices and outcomes depend on us. We can use social media to find collaborators who will help us change the world, people to work with or to find partners for the adventures of life.

Intimacy unhinged, unpaddocked me. I didn’t want it.

Diane Seuss,

Social media can be a tool of engagement and communication. It can also be a vicious hack of our attention for advertising revenue, a manipulation of endorphins for addiction, and a simulation of friendship with artificial connection. The owners of these platforms will continue to invest to make them more engaging, addictive and intimate (Metaverse anyone?). They are far less concerned with their impact on social fabric.

The challenge we face is to be discriminating users mitigating both the ego returns and the need with the perspective that life goes on best off these platforms. Use social media to find your community and then engage them on and off your platforms of choice.