Monday, August 09, 2010

Shifting priorities

Lately at work the biggest frustration is the shifting of priorities. There's always shifting priorities; it's a natural part of life. Things are constantly coming up that have to interrupt whatever else you were working on. And everyone always seems to want everything to be the highest priority, which of course means nothing is. Under the best of circumstances the shifting of priorities is a source of constant stress. But lately it's gotten so much worse.

Part of it is the source of the interruptions. More and more, they're not even someone else in my office having some project they think is more important than all the previous ones. More often, it's something being imposed from outside, some arbitrary, often bureaucratic, requirement, the execution of which affords us no actual benefit. So many one-size-fits-all "standards" that get in the way or don't help. I know that in most of the business world this has been the norm for a while, and it's only beginning to stick its insidious fingers farther into my employer's world. The more we talk about being nimble, the less nimble we are, as we obsess with accountability and best practices and process re-engineering and sigmas, far past the point where they help and well into where we're choosing them over the actual nuts and bolts of making and doing whatever we make and do.

Ultimately when you step back and look at what my office really needs, or can most benefit from, or most tellingly, what offers the best ratio of cost to benefit, they're always things that are on my to-do list somewhere but have been pushed far, far down. Instead, I'm doing quick fixes to tide us over until we can do the quick fix that's supposed to tide us over until we can do the real, scalable, extensible, efficient solution that I can't work on because I'm busy with all the quick fixes. Only I can't even do that quick fix because I'm busy recertifying a contingency plan for standards compliance with accountability protocols that really don't make any sense for an organization our size that handles the information we have, but which is universally required regardless of applicability.

The other half is that I now spend more time on "churn" than actual work. It's hard to express this concisely without making an analogy to operating system design. When a computer multitasks, what it's really doing is quickly switching back and forth between tasks; it's still only doing one thing at a time, but it's "time slicing" by giving each task a certain amount of time and then cutting to another one. But the process of switching from one to another isn't instantaneous or cost-free; there's a certain amount of time spent on saving the state of one and then restoring the state of the other. This is sometimes called "churn" and in some situations, a computer can end up spending most of its time churning (for instance, if it needs so much memory for all the programs that it's not just saving a few registers, but also swapping memory out to disk on each switch).

When I am working on trying to code a Sharepoint website and the phone rings, by time I'm done with the phone call, I might spend ten seconds saying "Now, where was I?" and getting back into the swing of things. That's like the churn on a well-balanced, efficient system. But when I spend four hours on the site and then have to set it aside for three weeks to do twelve other tasks that keep interrupting one another, and when I get back to it, I can only spend two more hours before being interrupted for another two weeks, churn is now taking up most of the time I have available. It's more than ten seconds to say "Now, where was I?" when the project has been on the back burner so long I have to remind myself how the development environment even works, let alone where I was on the project. I can take good notes on the project to reduce this, but they won't eliminate that much of the time is spent on getting back into the flow of the project, and the process of taking and updating those notes adds some churn too.

It's reasons like this that convince me that, without exception, every single effort being made by my employer, and probably by every other employer in this country, that is supposedly oriented towards "making us more efficient," is actually making us less efficient. And we're reaching a critical point where the inefficiencies are self-compounding and going to snowball. Not only is business brittle, prone to big failures from small causes, it's also paralyzing itself.

What I long for now is a chance to just work on one thing for a whole day and then be able to say it's done. What would be even better is if, whatever that was, it was something I had chosen to do because it was of benefit to the office. But I suppose I'll have to settle for a three-day weekend, and a chance to see some project through to completion at home, instead.

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