Has technology made us more or less productive?

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Every generation probably feels that it is living through the most profound changes that have ever happened since the dawn of time.

From the printing press to the industrial revolution, from world wars to the world wide web, things have changed – and the most visible part of that change is the technology that enables the modern world and, in particular, the technology that affects how we live and work.

So, is it helping us or not? Are we more productive or not?

It’s hard to tell – and that’s because an abundance of something always results in a shortage of something else.

So, take how modern technology has transformed the world of work, making it easier for us to collaborate, have everything everywhere and communicate with others. How are these working out in practice?

Is it easier to work with others?

Many new companies and startups are delighted by how easy it is to collaborate with others on projects now.

Take Google docs, for example. We can share and work on a document at the same time – something impossible in the days when we had to write a draft, send it to someone else, wait for comments, rewrite and repeat the process until everyone was satisfied.

Now we can work together quickly, come to a consensus and publish anything we want pretty fast.

So why is that anything less than perfect?

For two reasons…

First, if two of us can collaborate, then so can others. If it’s easy to have five, ten, fifteen people all providing their input, then we can quickly get locked into a cycle of never ending comments, suggestions and changes.

Procurement is one area where such delays can increase delays massively. It takes much longer to get five buyers to agree than two and the trend towards decision by committee slows things down and doesn’t necessarily improve quality.

The second reason is that when it’s quick and easy to collaborate and produce something, the result is probably going to be of less quality.

That’s why we’re taught to be suspicious of things we read on the internet and to be more accepting of things we read in peer-reviewed journals.

Is it good having everything everywhere?

Dropbox, Google Docs, Office 365 – all these tools have changed the way in which we store information – taking us from a world of USB drives to being able to work on any computer anywhere.

It’s also meant that we can store everything – never lose a thing.

And so many of us pile on the gigs of storage, like the pounds we put on every year since college. It’s gradual, but it grows and, after some time, it shows.

Not every picture we take is worth saving. Not everything we write is worth preserving.

When we had limited space, we had to choose what to keep. So what we had was worth having. Now we have everything, but it’s hard to find what matters.

At some point we’ll probably wake up to the need for a digital diet. Just because its cheap to keep everything doesn’t mean we should, because it makes it more expensive for us to find what is important.

And it’s also annoying that when we get a phone call it could be one of seven contacts that system has scraped from all our accounts – although it’s just the one person…

We never apologise for sending a long letter these days

Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher is credited with writing a long letter with an apology for not having had the time to make it shorter.

When we had to write to each other, we probably took care to express our thoughts clearly and concisely so that we wouldn’t have to fix it weeks later when the replies came back.

With email, we can write to someone so quickly that we no longer need to think about our words and how they might be interpreted – after all we can follow up with a clarification immediately.

And that means we probably take less care – and it shows up in the increased number of emails we need to send to get things done.

It’s easy to communicate – and because it’s so easy we spend more time doing it. It’s also easy to get a meeting in the diary – and that’s why more managers spend their time in meetings than ever before.

But – sitting in a meeting and sending emails is not work – it’s stuff that gets in the way of doing real, useful work – like thinking about strategy, improving operations, recruiting or expanding.

If we all got together less often and interrupted each other less we might get more done.

The problem isn’t technology… it’s us

What we come back to is that the way use technology better is to understand how we humans use stuff. Make it easy for us and we’ll do it more – but something else suffers at the same time.

Technology can help us – but it can also hinder us.

To get the most out of it, we need to remember who is in control – it or us.

Why we don’t get noticed as much as we think

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Thomas Gilovitch, Victoria Medvec and Kenneth Savitsky carried out research to show that people overestimate how much others note what they do.

This is called the spotlight effect – the feeling we have that everyone is watching us, sitting in judgement or appreciation.

There’s a simple reason for that – it’s normal to feel that way – but it can also mean we’re too scared or embarrassed to do some things or are overoptimistic about our ability to make other things work.

Gilovitch et al point out that we’re at the centre of our own little worlds – and because we focus so much on us it’s hard to appreciate how much others actually see.

What’s inside us is not easy to see

The feelings and thoughts we have are private – but we often think others see them to a greater extent than they really do.

This can make us more anxious than we need to be. There’s no reason to assume that when we walk into a room, the people there will automatically notice things about us that are off – whether it’s a bad hair day or a stain on our clothes.

Some will… most won’t.

We shouldn’t assume others know what we know

Because we’re so focused on ourselves and what we know, we often assume that everyone else knows it as well.

This means that we might think we’re explaining something well, but because the listener doesn’t have the knowledge we’re assuming they have, they don’t really understand us.

Let’s say we’re in a sales meeting. If we spend all our time talking about ourselves and our product before we understand just how familiar the other people in the room are with the topic, our chances of moving things on falls off massively.

We’re probably having less impact than we think

It’s easy in group situations to think that we’re being noticed more than we are – that we’ll be singled out because of something we’ve noticed.

Conversely, it’s easy to assume that what we’re saying is important – and that other people think it’s important.

That often isn’t the case.

Listening to someone else is hard. Listening to a group is harder. And it’s almost impossible to really listen to someone else when we’re spending all our time thinking about what we’re going to say next.

The formula for moving on

Joe Gebbia, the co-founder of Airbnb has a formula that might help us overcome the spotlight effect – especially when we’re not being noticed as much as we want to.

SW2 + WC = MO

SW squared stands for some will love it, some won’t. Putting it together with the others, we get some will love it, some won’t plus who cares equals move on.

We just need to keep working, and eventually we’ll get noticed.

How entrepreneurial are you really?

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We live in a world where we increasingly have to take responsibility for our own careers. The ladders that used to be around are getting old and have missing rungs.

For some of us, the ladders weren’t ever there. We had to make our own and clamber up as best we could.

The problem is knowing where to go and what to do next. What do we do if we’ve just entered the workforce? What do we do after twenty years? After forty?

Knowing ourselves better may help answer such questions. In particular, knowing how we’re oriented when it comes to entrepreneurial activity may help us make some tough choices.

Jeff Covin and Dennis Prescott introduced the concept of Entrepreneurial Orientation (EO) in 1985 and came up with a scale to measure it.

The model has been tested over time and is well accepted and essentially measures three aspects of a firm:

  1. How innovative it is.
  2. How proactive it is.
  3. How much of a risk taker is it?

How innovative are you?

Managers at an entrepreneurial company emphasises research and development and its technological lead over competitors. It has many products and changes them quite quickly.

At the opposite end, a company might prefer proven products, bringing out nothing new or making minor changes.

How proactive are you?

Entrepreneurial companies strike first – doing things that their competitors have to respond to. The bring in new products, services, processes, ways of doing things – and have an attacking mindset when it comes to the competition.

Their opposite numbers prefer harmony and carving up the market, responding to change and usually introducing anything new later.

How much risk do you take?

Entrepreneurial companies are willing to take bold, aggressive steps and make decisions that have a high risk but associated with high reward.

Less entrepreneurial companies prefer low risk opportunities, believe in caution and incremental progress and wait to see what happens before committing themselves.

So, does being innovative, acting first and taking risk work?

Entrepreneurial firms do better – but as a whole many fail as well.

Firms that tilt towards the high end of an EO scale are entrepreneurial in the sense that some people on the OCEAN scale are agreeable.

It clearly helps to be innovative when small because people meet us because they see the prospect of something new and shiny- but sometimes large firms only want to work with firms that are low risk.

It’s better to be proactive than not – many a salesperson has been told that they’ll find a million dollars under their shoes if they get going.

Risk is perhaps the tricky one. It’s easy come up with cliches – swing for the fences – go hard or go home.

The entrepreneurs that succeed are probably good at maximising the upside while limiting the downside.

And there are lessons for us as individuals as well – being innovative, proactive and being willing to take risk will get us further this century than looking for ladders to climb.