I had one of those “why didn’t I make the connection before? It’s so obvious!” moments recently, while thinking through a chapter of my book-in-progress. The three things I connected were David Allen’s subtle definition of organization: “where things are suits what they mean to you,” James C. Scott’s masterpiece on how governments develop an organizational “view” of reality, Seeing Like a State, and Gareth Morgan’s magisterial work on the role of metaphor in organization theory, Images of Organization. Why is this of interest to us? Well it turns out, if you put these three things together, you can explain why and how neatness and organization differ. You can also explain why it is so much harder for groups to get organized, compared to individuals, why they end up neat rather than actually organized, and what to do about it. Let’s start with this picture:
Legibility, Other-Meaningfulness and a GTD Definition of Neatness
In the classic GTD paradigm, you cannot objectively state whether this desk is organized or not. It depends on what the arrangement of stuff in this workspace means to the the owner, Blue Head guy. It is definitely not neat, but this could count as perfectly organized, if Blue Head routinely dumps his receipts under the table after a trip, and uses the floor when he needs extra workspace. If he gets his expense reports done on time, and never loses stuff on the floor, who are you and I to judge? When I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I saw a fine example of this. My thesis adviser was a neat and organized guy. Nothing was ever out of place. Things got processed, and his desk surface was always immaculate. Across the hall at the time was another professor, for whom I was a teaching assistant one term. His office looked like a huge mess. Piles of journals and papers were everywhere. If you dropped by, there would be nowhere to sit. Yet, he could find what he needed in seconds. Both were equally effective and productive as academics. I realized that the second professor was very self-aware and actually understood his system at a philosophical level when I found a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s article “The Social Life of Paper” clipped to his door (a very smart exploration of how people really use paper to organize).
But to understand what “neatness” is, consider what someone else makes of an organized-but-not-neat situation, like our friend Green Head in the picture above. Why does he come to the different set of conclusions about what the four groups of “stuff” mean?
The deep reason for this is the association of neatness with low entropy. In the non-living world, symmetry, straight lines, right angles and such are only created by humans (or by atomic forces at microscopic crystalline levels). The result is that if you don’t know anything else, you can always safely assume that these attributes represent meaning to somebody. So even without knowing what the pile A means to Blue Head, Green Head can guess that it probably manifests some meaning.
Now, let’s mix in Scott’s notion of “legibility.” Scott argues that organizations tend to take complex realities created by organic human societies and reconstruct them in “neater” ways simply to make them easier to see and control organizationally. This process by which governance systems try to make the governed more “legible,” he goes on to show, often backfires by getting rid of a lot of critical subtleties in meaning, simply because they are not easily made legible. This reductive view of a rich reality is then imposed by the governance system onto the reality itself, as a Procrustean bed. The result is a mess; a case of an attempt at organization breaking what didn’t need fixing. A beautiful example he discusses is how the imposition of the more legible and “standardized” metric system in Napoleanic France actually made land measurements for the purpose of taxation less accurate in some cases.
That notion of legibility gives us a definition of neatness that is a companion to David’s definition of organization.
Neatness is that property of stuff that makes it legible to people other than the owner of that stuff.
Neatness, in this sense depends only on the stuff itself, not on the relationship between Blue Head and Green Head, or the extent to which they share a sense of meaning. Green Head could be an alien for all we care. That’s what legibility means: stuff in another language can be judged for legibility whether or not you can parse its meaning. You don’t need to know Chinese to tell random doodles made by a Chinese kid from written language, or good calligraphy from bad. The same goes for each of our private “languages” of organization.
But if, in addition (or instead), Blue Head and Green Head have shared meaning — shared mental models of some commonly experienced part of the universe — the desk will be more than legible to Green Head. it will be other-meaningful. It can even be illegible and still be other-meaningful to specific “others.” Here are a few examples, ranging from the “naturally self-documenting and legible” and “legible and consciously documented” to “meaningful but illegible” and the stupidest variety: other-meaningful and legible but not meaningful to the owner.
Examples of Meaning, Other-Meaning and Legibility
Personally, I am pretty much always organized, but my neatness swings between illegible and highly-legible. When legible, my systems are not very other-meaningful beyond “this isn’t trash, so don’t mess with it.” I don’t document much.
Creating Shared Meaning
This suggests a rather depressing thought: one of the reasons you and I are attracted to GTD is that it is not just tolerant of personal idiosyncracies, it actually encourages hacking and customization and apparent creative anarchy, so long as the “meaning” criterion is respected. But what happens when you must collaborate and coordinate with others? Is neatness and objective legibility the only path to other-meaningfulness? Is “seeing like a state” an unavoidable pathology?
Fortunately, no. You can create collaborate beautifully without getting into neatness. The key is to get to agreement on what stuff means, rather than how it should look. Crazy-creative startups have such deep levels of shared meaning that they can be phenomenally well-organized but completely illegible to visitors from big corporations. In the other direction, we instantly recognize “petty bureaucracy”: big-organization stuff that is neat and legible, but meaningless and other-meaningless because the process was designed under conditions that no longer exist, for and by employees who are no longer around to explain.
And here’s where the third piece of the puzzle comes in: organizational metaphor. Since the degree to which you need to share meaning is the degree to which others’ systems need to be legible and other-meaningful to you, smaller groups can create shared meaning in more fluid ways than bigger groups. But even the biggest organizations can create shared meaning that goes a really long way without degenerating into “Seeing Like a State” disorganized neatness.
This level of shared meaning is created by your fundamental metaphor for your organization. Morgan analyzes several major ones in his book. I have listed them here.
Not all these metaphors impact visible systems and processes equally, but if you can read the dominant metaphor, the entire organization will become a lot more legible and/or other-meaningful to you. A simple example: if everyone seems to dress casually, and there are always cookies and fun posters around, you can probably assume that the ‘culture’ metaphor is important, and that it reads ‘fun and relaxed.’ You can use that to deduce that an illegible desk, that might mean “disorganized and ineffective” in a true “machine” organization, probably means the opposite here. If you know that an organization has a lot of the “brain” metaphor going on, where people get things done by acting like neurons — communicating intensely and informally at the watercooler — then you can read that behavior as “effective” instead of “disorganized slacking off.”
There isn’t room here to go into this in detail, but this view of organization, neatness, legibility and meaning is a very powerful way to look at effectiveness in decision-making. If you’d like to explore this theme more, the two books are well worth checking out. I must warn you though, they are heavy-lift books. Don’t expect to knock either off on a single plane ride. And of course, my own in-progress book, Tempo, a book about decision-making, will have a whole chapter devoted to the theory and concepts behind this approach to analysis. Do visit that link and sign up for the release announcement if this subject interests you!
p.s. I will be participating in two of the panels at the GTD Summit, where I’ll share some more ideas from my book, as they relate to GTD! Do drop by if you plan on being there.
Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at www.ribbonfarm.com, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this blog are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.
A Community Contribution by Venkatesh Rao
If you are into GTD, your desk/main workspace is probably a constant source of intellectual stimulation for you. Do you think your workspace manifests and models the future of work? If so, take a quick picture and tweet it to @cloudworker on twitter (run by the folks at cloudworker.org). You’ll need to upload it somewhere like twitpic first of course, and you’ll need a twitter account (if you’ve been waiting to try twitter, this is the perfect excuse). The deadline is Jan 31. You could win some cool prizes. I hope a GTDer wins! Here’s my (noncompeting) entry, a picture I took of my desk with its own webcam. I call it “My desk introspects.”
There’s an interesting story behind this contest. A few months ago, Plantronics ran a contest inviting people to suggest words to replace ‘telecommuter,’ since we all lead lives that are so much more complex these days. My entry, ‘cloudworker’ was the winning entry. I define it as ‘someone who uses the flexibility of on-demand work anywhere/anyplace technology to craft a my-size-fits-me career.’ You can read the series of articles I’ve been writing about the concept here. In a lot of ways, this is an idealized archetype similar to what David likes to call a ‘martial artist’ of work. The difference of course, lies in the special emphasis on the use of virtual work technology and the economic emphasis on people who build an element of entrepreneurship into their careers (even if only through a blog).
The contest and the cloudworker entry got quite a lot of attention, and it is continuing unabated, so I’ve stopped updating the page above. Some friends of mine, who run a design and innovation startup company called WilsonCoLab, were intrigued by the concept. So they decided to start www.cloudworker.org, a nonprofit website devoted to exploring the future of work in creative, artistic ways, using monthly themed contests. This contest of workspace photographs is their second contest. To help the new site along, I donated most of the prizes I won from Plantronics (about $2000 worth of audio equipment) to them, to use as prizes for their contests.
My entry above is non-competing, since I am sort of a charter sponsor of the site, but I am still curious to see if a lot of people can come up with more creative ways of looking at their desks than I have. And of course, like any organization nut, I am curious about the variety of desks out there too. For those of you with literary tastes, the beautiful book, Neatness Counts, which analyzes the desks of some famous writers in metaphoric ways, may provide inspiration (I warn you though, it is heavy with postmodernese).
Editor’s Note: It is my pleasure to introduce a new GTDtimes Contributor, Venkatesh Rao. Venkat works at the Xerox Innovation Group, where he leads technology projects that aim to invent the future of documents and information work.
Prior to Xerox, he spent 2.5 years as a postdoc at Cornell, in Raff D’Andrea’s robotics research group. His work at Cornell was on Air Force command and control models for future battlefields. Between 1997-2003, he was at the University of Michigan, working on his PhD, which was on aircraft and spacecraft formation dynamics, with Pierre Kabamba.
His home discipline is systems and control theory, but for inspiration and ideas he draws from all the decision sciences including OR and AI. More of Venkat’s work can be found at his personal weblog, Ribbonfarm.
Recalibrating Your GTD Systems
(adapted version of an article I originally posted on my personal blog, ribbonfarm.com. GTD newbies might want to start with the for-dummies level companion piece I just posted there, before tackling this one.)
Here’s a great holiday-season project for you GTDers looking to improve your systems: recalibration. If you pull this off, your New Year’s resolutions might actually be more than a ritual in 2009. Your GTD system is really just a complex feedback control system, like your car’s cruise control or your thermostat. And like every system that depends on measurement, it needs occasional recalibration. So this article aims to show you how you can recalibrate your own systems, using my own efforts as a case study. It begins with the fundamental question, can you measure information work? The short answer: yes. Here is a graph, based on real data, showing the real cumulative quantity of information work in my life during two years and some months of my life, between January 2004 and about March 2006.
Figure 1: Quantity of work over one year
Calibrating Work in the Raw
The first thing you’ve got to understand about measuring information work is that at the ground level, one size does not fit all. There are ways to abstract away from the specific nature of your work, which I’ll get to, but you still need to understand it first. The measurement methods I’ll talk about later rely on data artifacts generated by meta-work (like GTD lists). But meta-stuff must be calibrated against what it talks about. A typical next-step in your life may be an hour long, while one in my life may be five minutes. You won’t know until you look.
Every sort of information work transforms some sort of information artifact into some other sort of information artifact. Paul Erdos famously defined mathematics as the process of turning coffee into theorems, so in his case plotting ‘gallons of coffee’ (considering caffeine, metaphorically, to be information) against ‘number of theorems proved’ might have worked as a first pass.
My graph above reflects throughput patterns within my particular style of academic engineering research in modeling and simulation during that particular period (I was a postdoc at Cornell during this time). Coffee at Stella’s got transformed into written notes. Notes got transformed, in this case, into computer code with which I ran experiments, which produced data files. The data then got transformed to research output documents (papers and presentations). Here’s how I measured this throughput, each artifact in its own unit, with the graphs scaled so that the cumulative total at the end of the year is 1 (since we don’t care about absolute numbers when comparing apples and oranges) :