Timmy is an accountant with 15 years experience. He is organised and has a list of tasks stored in a popular web-based task management software. At the bottom of the list is a 10 month old task to change a company logo on a report he generates using some software he has become the in-house expert on. It’s a five minute task. When I ask him why he hasn’t done the task – he is visibly upset and what follows is an hour long chat on the nature of his job.
How can a “five minute” task be depressing?
Timmy knows his shit. After 15 years, he has a finely tuned operation. The important work gets done – But this task. He told me has looked at that task dozens of times over the year and each time he gets depressed. So much so that he can’t face doing it.
When I have discussed this with others, a common response is “Get over it, just knock it out and move on”. This ignores the fact that the five-minute task represents a change that has happened to Timmy over the years. Timmy has spent years developing all sorts of skills – hard and soft. However, a portion of his work has remained firmly unevolved – happy to wallow in it’s own slime.
The Flow Zone
With apologies to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Mihaly is the genius behind the concept of Flow. The diagram above is my own version of a graph that plots skill level against challenge. (Luckily I have avoided using terms like arousal).
Someone is said to be in flow when their skill is closely matched to the challenge before them. This is used in game design with each successive level being harder than the previous. There are implications for work as well, especially knowledge work.
Take Timmy, he is firmly planted in the “FFS!” quadrant when faced with the “change logo” task. It’s a simple task and he considers it beneath him. This kind of thing happens all the time – boring work for senior people, anxiety inducing work for junior people. The outcome is unhappy people.
What are your options if you or your colleagues are out of the flow zone and in one of these horrible quadrants?
The “FFS!” quadrant
This is where Timmy found himself – A simple task that bores a senior person. So what are the options here?
- Change the person
- Change the task
These options apply in all the quadrants. But wait, what? …how?
In the “FFS!” quadrant, either Timmy himself or his boss might want to consider “Changing the Person” by delegating to a junior colleague. “Great way to turn a 5 minute task into a day-long task” you might say – but that’s how a junior person becomes a senior person. Of course, you don’t want to nudge the junior person into the “Oh Fuck! quadrant – delegation needs to be matched with appropriate training. And given that this is a 5 minute task, training will probably take less than 10 minutes. Presto – Boring job be gone forever. (As an added bonus, have the junior document the process. They need to know the process inside out to document it and they can hand it over to someone even more junior next week).
How can you Change the Task? Maybe the logo replacement process could be automated? Or maybe logos can be removed entirely from the reports – Why are they there in the first place?
The “Cool, cool, cool, cool” quadrant
This quadrant is all about the tension between a noob’s confidence and their ability to deliver. As an employer, why would you set up a new team member to fail by plunging them into “Oh Fuck!” territory. Send them home at the end of every day or week knowing they have contributed and gently nudge them up the flow zone through learning and success. Improve their skills through training and coaching.
The “Oh Fuck!” quadrant
What a horrible place to be… Still learning your trade and shouldered with a crazy complex project. How did this happen? Did someone lie during the hiring process?
If you can’t change the task or change the person… Run away!
The “Oh Yeah!” quadrant
That’s the feeling when you are enjoying your work at a high level. You’ve got the knowledge and an exciting challenge.
I read somewhere that one of the big tech firms tasks their senior engineers with making the junior engineers more productive. So they work on internal tools and processes that help others to do their jobs better. Being senior, they understand the problems faced by juniors in their work – they have solved those problems in the past. Once they attain a certain level, they only work ON the work, not IN the work.
Tasks, not roles or jobs
Roles can be challenging and fun, and still have these stupid depressing tasks included. Weed them out. Everyone wins.