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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Misdirected effort only generates heat, not light

Our efforts to produce result are often directed towards visible systems* which are under our control, so to say. For instance, if a student is studying for a subject to score higher marks, he typically focusses on efforts that are in his control - understanding the chapters of the subject, trying to understand the difficult sections by re-rereading and careful dissection,  mugging the portions that seem long winding and so on.

Smart students, on the other hand, concentrate on the invisible systems that are under their influence, not control. For instance, they will find all the connected systems around the subject and exploit the 'interrelations' between them. Using their friends who know the subject better they will understand the 'subject better and faster', by understanding what 'questions' appeared in the last year exam they will focus their effort selectively, by knowing when the subject exam is amidst rest of the subjects, they will plan the study time given to the subject carefully.  

If you are balancing your efforts between the invisible and visible systems unconsciously, you are the lucky one. Now, with the clear articulation of invisible systems, you can work on invisible system consciously.

As a student you may afford to ignore the invisible systems that help you produce result, but if you are working, you just cannot afford to ignore. In a work-system, invisible systems in the work-life are much larger in proportion ( about 60-70%) than in study-life. 

Ignoring the invisible systems in work-life is an invitation for trouble. For instance, what do you think is impact of invisible systems on the result of a player who is playing an individual game ( like tennis)   and not the team game ( like cricket). As you will observe in a tennis match, even when a player wins the same points as other player, he may still lose the match, because he failed to influence the invisible systems of the match. Can you guess the invisible systems of a tennis player? 

In an organisational work-life, the invisible systems matter a lot, because of the dual effect of specialisation and 'team-effect'. We have seen how much supervisors impact the evaluation of knowledge work in organisations.  We have also seen how managing perception is important for senior bosses for whom time is always scarce. Impact of invisible systems is very high on the work-output of a knowledge professional.

I have seen a smart sales officer unable to produce the desired 'output' because he was given a 'difficult' territory that was spoilt by the earlier incumbent. I have seen a smart programmer spend considerable time than required to 'maintain' a program, because the earlier programmer did not 'document and design' the program properly. I have seen a talented R&D manager struggling to produce 'result', because his product is competing with a heavy-weight multinational competitor who is spending 5 times the budget than his company. Every day, in my coaching, i see numerous examples in organisational work-life, where the result of an employee's effort is determined by invisible systems outside his control.

And despite the huge impact of invisible systems,  many smart professionals continue to bury their nose in the sand and do what is in their control. They suffer from the 'under the lamp' syndrome and tend to search for the key under the lamp post because that is 'where the light is'. They concentrate on systems under their control, and ignore the invisible systems which they can only influence.

In 2005-6, Mckinsey consultants had published a report saying that 60-75% of the engineering graduates in India are not fit for working in a corporate life. I would venture to say that this is due to their lack of ability to 'see' the invisible systems that impact their output. And when they are not trained to see the invisible systems, how can they influence it? With their youthful exuberance and energy, graduates in their initial work-life tend to produce lot of heat, without producing light. 

* Systems are conglomeration of interacting elements that serve the purpose of the system. 

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