One of the first jobs I had was in an insurance broker’s office. This was back in the day when (believe it or not) people used to buy home and motor insurance face-to-face or over the phone from a local broker. I sat in front of a monochrome ‘green-screen’ monitor in an office full of folders, secure filing cabinets and a lot of physical paperwork. Many of the “information systems” we used were entirely manual, including a ‘date file’ that was nothing more complex than an expanding folder with 31 pockets. If you wanted to remind yourself to review a particular item on the 28th, you’d put it in the pocket marked ‘28’…
A lot of my work was administrative and customer facing. It was a small office, and work was triggered by information or requests arriving. When I started work, we didn’t have e-mail, so the primary ways that information got in or out of the office were by:
- Post (delivered daily, batched and sent daily)
- Phone call
- Occasional courier/urgent document delivery
Since many of the processes were manual, work was very tangible and visible. Motor policies were applied for via a ‘Proposal Form’, at which point a handwritten ‘Cover Note’ was written. The proposal form was then sent to the insurance company by post. They then sent a ‘Certificate’ back a few days later. I am aware of how frighteningly archaic this all sounds, but it really wasn’t that long ago…
This tangibility somehow meant that there was an inherent hierarchy of attention. Let’s imagine it was first thing in the morning and I’ve sorted the post and I’m working through it (based on the urgency of the items). The phone rings, I’ll pick that up because it requires an urgent response, it’s synchronous and somebody is there waiting for attention. If somebody walks in, I certainly won’t hang up the phone, but I’d gesture to the person to take a seat so they know I’ll be with them as soon as I can. If a fax came, or if a second bundle of mail arrived whilst I was on the phone or speaking face-to-face with someone, so what? It’s asynchronous, it can (probably) wait. I certainly wouldn’t let a newly-arrived fax or letter interrupt a face-to-face conversation with a customer (unless there was a very, very good reason to do so).
Technology and Intangibility Disrupts the Perceived Hierarchy
Whilst the ‘manual’ information systems I worked with in the insurance broker’s office might sound archaic, they were at least ordered. Today we have ubiquitous access to a wide range of communication tools that enable us to send messages, exchange information and collaborate. This is hugely beneficial but it seems to have created a deficit in focus. Twenty years ago, we might have had two or three inboxes to check (fax, e-mail, post). Now, with the various social media, collaboration tools and ‘productivity’ tools we’ve probably got twenty. The urgency hierarchy is disrupted: with an SMS, a WhatsApp, 37 e-mails market ‘urgent’ and notifications from all sorts of other tools, where does one start?
It is all-too-easy to fall into patterns that, when looked at objectively, are at least ‘sub-optimal’ and at worst downright damaging to stakeholder or customer relationships. Think back to the insurance broker’s office—if you were in front of an insurance agent and they interrupted you to say “oh, sorry, I’ve just had a fax come in—I just need to send a reply” you’d probably walk out. Yet how many meetings do we see people ‘multitasking’. Replying to e-mails and ‘instant messages’, tuning out missing the opportunity to contribute fully. If it wouldn’t be considered OK to start sifting through letters and faxes in a meeting, why should it be considered acceptable to sift through the electronic equivalent?
Instantaneous Response Breeds Velocity
It’s important that we remember that ‘Instant Messages’ are called ‘Instant’ because they arrive quickly, not that they (necessarily) demand an instantaneous response. The cruel irony (and believe me, I learned this the hard way) is that the more IMs and e-mails you send, the more you receive. And the quicker you reply, the greater the expectation of speed, it’s a doom loop. This might be important if the reply is genuinely urgent or if it is ‘blocking’ someone from proceeding. But if we’re honest with ourselves it’s probably true that few IMs and e-mails actually need an instant reply. In the cold light of day, some might not need replies at all.
Perhaps it’s worth harping back to the old communication hierarchy, and creating our own versions to set expectations with colleagues. These hierarchies will differ depending on context, but my current hierarchy looks something like this:
- Phone: I’ll answer if I can, if I can’t I’ll respond to voicemails ASAP
- Text/IM etc: Triaged a few times a day. Generally same-day reply.
- E-mail: Triaged two or three times a day and replied to based on urgency. Urgent will get a same-day reply. Others, particularly those requiring work, will be acknowledged & scheduled.
- Post: Actioned every few days (very little of this arrives these days).
- Fax: We still have a virtual fax number, it hasn’t received a fax for over a year. But faxes would be treated as per e-mail.
I’m certainly not saying this is a universal hierarchy, nor that it’ll work for you. It’s one that works for me in my current context. When anything within the context changes, the hierarchy needs to be revisited. For example, if a relative is unwell it might become more important to check texts quickly. If a stakeholder doesn’t like using, or can’t communicate via phone then we’d need to adapt. What is most important is having a hierarchy—otherwise our attention and focus is robbed by the ‘app that chimes the loudest’. Surely we value attention more than that?
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy these two fantastic books which discuss similar topics. They inspired me to write this article!
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About the author:
Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.
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