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Connect less to connect more

By Nick Ellis, Digital Transformation Consultant | Published 21 Dec 2020

I realise this is an odd thing for a Digital Transformation Consultant to say. It’s also an odd thing to say in a pandemic when many people – myself included – have bemoaned the lack of human interaction. In fact, I have promoted some forms, in particular the digital lunch.

I am increasingly worried that the high levels of digital connectivity are at the expense of true connection, and of actual productivity. To coin a phrase, “Busyness is not Business”. We have placed immediacy and availability on a platform, sometimes above quality and value. That is true in business, it is certainly true in retail, and I fear it is becoming true in human relationships as well.

Many of us feel compelled to be visibly busy across the whole day – email and IM tools ping for our attention and we feel we have to reply; we think we’re not doing enough on social media; we worry, especially in these remote times, that our boss cannot see activity and therefore we make ourselves ostentatiously – if not very productively – busy.

Pause for thought

Is all this connected interaction actually adding anything to our lives? Or is it just another source of stress? I’ve been reading Deep Work by Cal Newport and it’s given me serious pause for thought. Which is what he would like us all to do, I think – pause for thought.

Newport’s proposition is that we would achieve more personally and professionally if we worried less about how many people we connect with and more about the depth and value of our connections. In some senses this seems obvious. The person making one successful sales call a day is outperforming the person making 100 unsuccessful ones. The difficulty is how to adjust our behaviours to reflect this.

At the same time, all the connectedness, all the responding to emails and fretting about the flashing tile in the taskbar, distracts us from devoting enough attention to the task at hand. We risk neither building real connections, nor producing highly crafted, valuable product.

Adding value

I have set myself a couple of immediate goals in response to this book. Firstly, I am looking more closely at how I spend my time and how it adds value for my customers, for me and for my employer. Adding value for my customers should hopefully be obvious. If it’s not there are bigger problems to worry about. Adding value for me is a bit less tangible. It’s about understanding what I am learning, why and how it will help me in the future. For my employer, I am thinking more seriously about how that learning translates into improved service, which ultimately rolls back into value for the customer.

Secondly I am looking for ways to focus on the craft of what I do as much as the busy output. This is something I have been contemplating for much of the year, and not exclusively in work. I have also been trying – with mixed results – to improve my skills with wood and tools.

Having spent most of my career on the more ‘knowledge’ end of a highly knowledge driven industry I have devoted a lot of time to connection and to building knowledge. But the craft – the deep work of producing a tangible product of quality – is something I have missed since I stopped programming and moved into management. Some may say the network of connections built over 20 years is a quality product, and I would not disagree but I do think that as a society we need to focus more on the craft.

We are all paid for what we know, more than for what we do

Many years ago I was told by a senior colleague “I’m paid for what I know, not what I do”. He was right then, and the sentiment is even more true now. And in the coming decade it will become absolutely irrefutable. Although it was under duress, we have proved the remote working model. Old fashioned management styles that worried about people being in a particular location, or working at a particular time, are looking even more dated than they did a year ago.

If you can happily work with someone 10 miles away, why not 100, 1,000, or even 10,000? And in that scenario, those with the knowledge and skills will be able to work anywhere and focus on what they enjoy, leaving behind the distractions of shallow interaction to focus on real craft. And of course, every time they do so their depth of skill and knowledge only increases.

This is not an anti-technology rant. I love a good bit of tech. But I am starting to re-evaluate how I use it. I use a tablet, but it’s a ReMarkable 2, designed to encourage focus, with no apps other than a beautiful paper-like notepad with the ability to share, convert to text, and so on; after 10 years on Twitter, I am increasingly focussing on a few good people who bring value and joy into my life rather than chasing followers for the sake of it; in my work I am looking at ways to help clients use technology to free themselves from being shackled to the workplace; in the solutions I propose I am focussing more on producing a crafted piece – albeit a digital one – than a quick-fix that will lose value just as quickly.

The Machine Stops

Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ warned us of a society where everyone was valued not for what they do but purely for their social capital. He did not intend it as a suggestion. E.M. Forster’s remarkably prescient The Machine Stops deals with what happens when a society venerates the machine, and the connectedness that machine enables, and as the title suggests what happens when it stops. I would like us to create our own brave new world, one where we value social capital and skilled work alongside each other; to recognise that the machine is a tool, an incredible one that enables things not dreamt of a few years ago; that it serves us and our needs and not the other way around.

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