As we return after the New Year, I thought I would put together a few articles to help us improve our focus on what’s important.
If you’ve ever read about the quintessential writers, you’ll know they invariably have a shed at the bottom of the garden. They disappear into it at 4 am to write, with a cup of tea delivered at 11, and then continue, page after page, until a hard stop at 3 pm for family time. On the other end of the spectrum sits our stereotypical 1970’s business leaders who arrive at the office at 7 am, connect their headset, and shout orders from 7 to 7, before heading to the bar for a few martinis and dinner, before going home to repeat the routine the next day.
However, most of us fall somewhere along the slider, moving between creativity at one end and management at the other. I call the two extremes Value Creation (VC) and Value Management (VM). After all, it’s value that we are trying to create.
In my world, it’s mainly the doers – the developers, graphic designers, and others who get the job done by writing code, creating imagery, and designing systems. I am not excluding purist creatives, such as artists, writers, manga comic designers, and other creatives, but they sit at one end. Typically, the role of managers and leaders sits firmly toward the VM end, with endless meetings, interactions, and communications like emails and calls. This article is aimed at those who sit somewhere in the middle, as they struggle to switch from creative work to management tasks and back in their daily lives.
If we compare VC and VM work, we quickly see that we need both a different approach and a different mindset for each. creative work sits in the area of innovation. It’s about building a creative space. It’s proactive. It is objective-oriented, setting a goal for the task and designing a framework to allow the ideas to germinate and flourish. Typically, we need longer uninterrupted time blocks to facilitate this. It’s about a deep and sustained focus on a single objective to coax it out of its shell.
Management (VM) work is not like this at all. There is no single overarching objective that we are trying to progress. It is focused on the present, operational needs of the business. It is task-oriented, needing fast and smart decision-making, reacting to what is evolving around you. It’s about juggling many tasks simultaneously, focusing on shifting priorities and the day-to-day needs of management.
It’s easy to see why people struggle to switch from VC work with its contemplative nature focusing very much on the WHY (objective) and the HOW (framework) and trusting that the WHAT will emerge, versus the VM work with its focus on thinking fast and smart decision making.
This is also why many people whose role is primarily on one side of the fence to the other, have a particular dislike for the opposition. Many people in VC-focused roles dislike and avoid VM tasks. At the same time, VM individuals never get around to the VC work.
I work primarily with people whose role is to create and build products for the enterprise. A common complaint among them is the amount of energy spent on VM activity. Many, especially those passionate about their work, get particularly frustrated. I recently encountered a situation where the leadership’s response was to view this as a necessary evil that they just needed to accept. At one level, they were right. It’s crucial to acknowledge the importance of interaction and collaboration between the individual and the team and between the individual and the wider enterprise. Daniel Pink talks about autonomy through alignment: the more autonomy there is, the greater the focus on ensuring we all move in the right direction. Along with alignment, we also need to continuously improve how we work together as a team and as an enterprise.
I appreciate how the Scrum framework approaches this with structured meetings at fixed times, accounting for about 15% of your working time. The idea is that these ceremonies should effectively replace all other official meetings, allowing the team to focus on ‘doing the do.’ The content of these ceremonies is specific, centered around planning, aligning on progress, reviewing completed work, and continuously improving how we work together. The times are set, allowing team members to focus on their creative work outside these periods. Problems arise if these ceremonies are not used as intended, if times are changed, or when additional meetings are added.
The key point here is that people whose role is primarily VC need to accept some degree of VM activity. However, as leaders, our job is to structure this VM work to maximize efficiency and alleviate the stress and ambiguity associated with their VM tasks.
This creative versus management thinking is not new. It crops up in different guises in everything from goal-setting theory to neuropsychology. Cal Newport coined the term Deep Work for VC and Paul Graham talked about Maker versus Management scheduling.
For many of us sitting closer to the VM end of the slider, it is the VC tasks that suffer from neglect. Be under no illusion, the motivation to complete VM-type work is far stronger than VC work. I particularly like the Eisenhower attributed Quote “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” And from this, stems the Eisenhower Matrix. You might remember it, four quadrants within an X / Y axis. The X-axis is from Urgent to non-urgent, the Y denoting Not Important to Important. VC can typically fall under Important / Non Urgent and VM falls into Important / Urgent.
This urgency component is crucial. Konig and Steel’s 2006 Temporal Motivation Theory (TMT) centers its theory around the fact that urgency, particularly deadlines, significantly increases motivation as the deadline looms.
Even neuro-chemistry plays its part. VM leads to micro achievements, leading to a neurochemical hit of dopamine helping us to feel engaged and excited, driving us into the now, and speeding up reaction time and pattern recognition.
Strategies for Effective Context Switching:
Be under no illusion, switching between VC and VM-type work is challenging. The internet is full of studies about how much time it takes to refocus, and how it can make us more tired and less productive. So, how do you maintain your productivity and creativity as you shift?
- Rule number 1: Set clear boundaries. Establish specific times for each type of work and try to keep them separate. It’s also wise to inform your colleagues, as this helps manage expectations. In the past, I’ve received negative feedback about approachability during VC mode due to misunderstandings of my demeanor and responsiveness.
- After finishing one mode, take a break before transitioning to the next. A short stroll, a breathing exercise, or just some downtime can really help gear up for the next phase.
- Start your day with a clear list of priorities. It’s also smart to tackle creative (VC) work when you’re most energized.
- Focus on optimizing both digital and physical environments. I know people who create distinct environments for each type of work. They clear their desk, close all laptop windows, switch off their phones, and bring out the Post-it notes when moving into VC mode.
- There’s no shortage of tools and apps to assist you. Use calendars to organize your day, a time-blocking app, or simple reminders and notifications to keep track of time and transitions.
- Manage your expectations through each phase. Begin by setting realistic objectives and aim to improve your skills over time.
- VC work requires a different mindset than VM work. With creative work, constantly remind yourself of your single objective and stick to your process to stay on course.
- Continuously refine how you work. Regularly review your effectiveness and adjust your schedule, timing, planning, etc. Be flexible and modify as needed based on work demands.
Remembering these strategies will help you smoothly transition from the dynamic, decision-focused VM work to the objective-focused VC work, maintaining productivity and reducing cognitive load throughout your day.
As an individual, recognizing the difference between our VC work and our VM activity is crucial. VC is all about innovation, creativity, and long-term vision. VM focuses on operational efficiency, decision-making, and managing daily tasks. We need to understand that they complement each other and learn how to balance the two as both are critical for success.
Key to this is our ability to create boundaries between the two, allocating specific time for our deep and focused VC work and our task and people-focused VM work. Along with this is learning to transition seamlessly back and forth between the creative and the structured. Time management is crucial. Scheduling long periods for VC work allows for periods of high creativity and energy. VM work does not require the same lengths of time, but it is also important to reserve time for operational tasks.
Continuously adapt your balance between the two as your work demands evolve, and regularly reflect on and improve how you manage both sides. Effective transition is crucial. Experiment with different techniques, brief breaks, breathing techniques, etc in the switch between modes. Use tools and technology to effectively manage time.
By understanding and effectively balancing your creative and management activity, you can enhance your productivity, reduce ambiguity and stress, and achieve a more satisfying work experience