Friday, March 19, 2010

Time's up

As promised, I have a reply for Michael Wade after a couple of weeks' consideration. Unfortunately, it's too long to post as a comment (blogger tells me the limit is 4k characters). So I'm posting here. It expands a little on the raw list I posted at the time.


Michael,

Thank you for your simple and thought provoking suggestion. As I indicated in my initial response, it has always been quite possible to have a boilerplate reply that (re)sets expectations about the timing of your considered answer.

However, once you have set those expectations, it is vital that you meet them. In that spirit, here are a few thoughts on the tyranny of the instant response culture.

What's the problem here?

It has always been possible to read and respond instantly. In the old days, with two posts a day, it was possible to send a letter, get a response and send your agreement in the same day. The gurus advise us to work our mail in batch, once or twice a day. So what's changed?

Well, of course many of us don't take the gurus too seriously. We keep the incoming mail warning set. So when we are struggling with a piece of serious work and in danger of achieving something, we are offered the relief of a stream of new things to distract us. After all, a change is as good as a rest.

And then we can respond, filling mailboxes around the world with a stream of witty banter. Our mailboxes rapidly fill up with soft focus gossip. Mail has more of the characteristics of a phone call. It is common to see a "conversation" (bit of a Freudian slip there, Bill) with twenty or thirty responses, in the course of a day. (Which could have been managed in ten minutes with a phone call and a single mail to confirm understanding). There is the additional feature that it gets forwarded. So you don't know who you are talking to.

Introducing your inner lizard

Seth Godin has recently introduced into his blog the theme of The Lizard. This is more than a metaphor. The R-complex is the primitive area of the brain which is the first (historically and biologically) to develop. It sits between the body and the thinking brain and acts as gatekeeper between thought and action. It is very, very stupid. In my simple model (actually, I got this from Mark Forster. This is the subject of the first chapter of his book on task management, Do It Tomorrow. This chapter is freely available.), the lizard brain is binary. To any stimulus, it's response is either
- "Nice: I'll 'ave that!!" GRAB or
- "Oo-er: scary!!" FLEE/HIDE

Both are well illustrated in Butoy and Gabriel's seminal work on reptile behaviour.

Your lizard loves email and the internet

The point here is that a new mail offers our inner lizards respite from toil and the possibility of something new and fun. So OF COURSE it will want to investigate. The dubdubdub (which I understand to be street argot for the "www" or "worldwide web". See how this poor backward Englishman is trying to accommodate any trendy, groovy and with-it Colonials who might chance to read this) is an infinite pinball machine for our lizards to scamper around in, bouncing happily from bumper to bumper.

On the face of it, this appears to bode ill for intelligent discourse. But we should admit the possibility that this sort of reactive behaviour is a flocking strategy for a whole generation. This leads to a sort of hive mind that can do some things efficiently and intelligently.

OK. Possibility admitted. That way leads to fashion (please read "fashion" in a tone of dretful scorn) and heads on spikes. Bah!

This too shall pass

Back to mail for a moment. Gartner predicted a couple of years ago that business would move to instant messaging as its main form of communication. I am seeing that now. It is hard for people to complain about your lack of responsivenes to a mail if you are chatting to them and a couple of other teams in a chat room. This frees up mail to record the outcomes or to request responses which CAN wait. As we begin to get used to this, I do believe that the mail madness will pass.

Though we still need to work out how we will deal with the constant chatter.

If you have any further concerns or questions on this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours sincerely,

Will