I’ve had the somewhat dubious good fortune to have spent many years doing very technical work, and many more serving as an executive. Technical work usually involves intense concentration, periods of long focus, and the ability to hold a huge collection of very short-term contingencies in your head. Interruptions, even brief innocuous ones, can break your concentration, destroy your focus, and bring the contingencies down like a house of cards.
One of the things I noticed repeatedly, with my own work and with dozens of highly skilled technical co-workers, was that if left undisturbed I could accomplish many times more than I could when exposed to seemingly trivial interruptions. In some situations, where the number of short-term items in my head was very large and complex, the difference between working undisturbed for several hours and being interrupted by even a few phone calls, drop-ins, emails, etc., was amazing. What I could get done in one day of solitude could sometimes require several weeks to do in a typical office environment.
While I was working in this capacity, I had many conversations with people working with a similar intensity in management. The difference in our mental states was striking, and sometimes led to insurmountable communication breakdowns. Highly detailed work is almost always also highly specialized: few people outside that field have a realistic sense of what’s going on. Similarly, the issues high-level managers deal with tend to be well outside the experience of people in other fields. But the similarity ends there.
Although two technical workers are accustomed to spending considerable time learning how to bridge the gap between disciplines, the gap between technical work and management work is of a different character. In most cases I’ve experienced, high-level managerial people are too busy to afford the time required to gain a realistic understanding of the myriad specialties they manage or rely on.
After several years mainly performing detailed technical work, I found myself in high-level management roles in various corporations, large and small. Management work often involves intense concentration, numerous but very brief periods of focus, and the ability to hold a huge collection of contingencies in hour head. As I’ve mentioned above, these modes of work are similar in many ways to those of technical workers, but the differences that impair communication are crucial:
- Periods of focus are of necessity very brief, sometimes almost non-existent.
- The contingencies that must be kept track of, however complex, don’t all change every time you alter some variable. They change, to be sure, but at the relatively human pace of an organization in action.
- In contrast, technical complexities are often entirely interdependent, intricately interwoven, and the whole behavior of a system may change drastically with a single tiny modification. High-level management complexities also intertwine, but largely in areas of human behavior.
What if an executive needs to understand something technical, in order to make a good decision? Usually, she calls in a technical person and asks for a brief summary of the system or situation. But what if the key concepts in that summary are unfamiliar to the executive? Each one requires an explanation—otherwise their interactions can’t be understood. But what if the technical person is unfamiliar with the background and interests of the executive? How can he know what level the key concepts should be explained? What if the executive believes she knows more than she actually does? What if she has only ten minutes, and each key concept (even in the hands of an expert explainer) requires fifteen minutes? And what if jargon is involved, either management jargon the tech person doesn’t understand, or tech jargon the manager doesn’t understand? What if the tech person second-guesses the executive’s intentions and tries to incorporate a strategic argument into his summary? What if the executive doesn’t believe in the expertise of the technical person?
The result, in many of the companies I’ve experienced, is spectacular inefficiency and waste—of time, money, and human resources.
The solution is not at all obvious, of course, or these problems wouldn’t be so familiar to us all. From all that I’ve seen in numerous businesses of varying size and longevity, I submit that the key component for improving communication among specialties, including the all-important gap between technical and management professionals, is to slow down. And the vital corollary to slowing down is to be quiet, to listen.
These qualities, which could be summarized as calmness and attentiveness, or even as simply silence, are central to all communication, and all learning. Business is intrinsically a process of communication, and success in business is intrinsically one of learning. Unfortunately, the many forms of silence are not always inherent in the corporate culture, for reasons having to do with a key concept from Maharishi’s Absolute Theory of Management, but I’ll have to save that for a future article.