Negative Work

A few years ago I had the fortune to work with a group of young professors that were the most honest, hard working, intelligent, and caring group of people I have ever met. One of the greatest learning experiences from those days was the concept of "negative work." One of these professors rose quickly up the academic ladder and within weeks of being at an administrative position he confided with me his theory of negative work.

"One of the employees in the organization produces negative work," he explained to me. I was puzzled by this, how can someone produce negative work? He had a simple, brilliant and clear explanation. "Any work I give to that person will eventually require that I rescue it and then I have to clean up the mess. The result is that it takes longer to get the work done, thus this person produced more work for me, and the output of the person's work was negative productivity." Brilliant. We quickly classified people at the organization in terms of their the absolute value of their productivity.

Today, as I struggle to be productive, and as I learn more and more about Getting Things Done (GTD), I find myself thinking of the concept of negative work. I have found that it plays out in several places.

First, the GTD methodology suggests this 2 minute rule. If it takes less than 2 minutes, do it right away. Don't put it into your to-do system. The reason for this 2 minute rule is nothing other than our friend negative work, but produced by ourselves. It will take me longer to add the work item in the to do queue, to revisit it later, and to act on it at its due time than to just do it in the first place. Hence adding it into the queue of things to do will in fact make it longer because of the overhead of managing that simple task.

While this seems like a rather simplistic notion, but it is very important. A second example occurs within large organizations. Sometimes we become enamored by our "system" mentality and things then take longer because "I have a system." When the system drives you, in my opinion, the system takes over and you might end up producing less work than otherwise you would be able to produce ignoring the system. Negative work at play.

But, this happens in large organizations too. How many times have you run into the situation within some organization (and I am not pointing fingers here!) that they require you to do things in some particular order "because that is the process we follow." That process at time ends up producing negative work. Typical of these processes often have forms with multiple signatures at different locations, etc. Electronic management of documents is the wave of the past. I move my money around without ever signing a check. I pay my house electronically. I get my salary deposited directly without me even getting a piece of paper. Yet, to get some small insignificant permission to do something at work, at times we have to have 3 signatures and walk this piece of paper across buildings. Submitting proposals to government agencies from VT these days is still in this mode. The effect is negative work. There is more that needs to be done to support the system than the work item required in the first place. I am sure most graduate students here can think of a few more examples.

A third example is with committees. All committees have a person that answers your questions with other questions, thus never helping reach a solution to any issue. This person is a negative worker. These are people that no matter what you ask produce more questions than answers. In some circumstances this is essential, like in research. But in others, it is time draining. We have all heard of committees spending hours arguing over whether there should be a comma or semicolon at a particular location in a document that is going to live in a drawer until the next time that it is used (which will be when it is revoked for being obsolete).

A final example, and let it serve as guidance to those students who work with me, is how my requests to you are handled. When I ask a student for some information I am doing much more than the literal request of some fact. I am asking for collaboration, information, and other documentation that will help me reach a decision. For example, I often email to students things like "hey, this conference call seems close to your work. What do you think?" A negative work student (which I might add I have learned to spot quickly and don't often want them working with me) will often reply "interesting, do you really think we should publish there?" That is clearly the wrong answer. If I didn't think we should publish there, then I would haven't forwarded this to the student. The other extreme student (which is typical of the students that I work with) replies like this: "Very interesting. I went to their website and looked at a couple of papers from last year. They definitely seem similar to my work. I have taken the liberty of jotting down some notes about possible papers that we could write. Let's discuss these next time we meet. Thanks for sending it." Now, that is saving me some time and moving the work forward.

So, in conclusion, beware of negative work, before of negative workers, and try to be productive no matter what.

Posted on 04/24/2008



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