Shyamsunder Panchavati

Shyamsunder Panchavati
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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The CEO's Shakespearean Dilemma

CEO’s Shakespearean Dilemma.

To be or not to be, (or how much to be) that is the question…

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
This famous soliloquy more or less describes the dilemma the information  overload and multitasking has imposed on the CEO’s of the day. Of the enormous amount information; desirable, undesirable, solicited, unsolicited, important and trivial,   often presents dilemma for the CEO. The  difficult choie of what is to be  considered, what is to be ignored, where action is to be taken and where it is to be left alone often makes the Ceo's position akin to a burning cauldron .

Technology advance brings with it the evils of its own. The speed with which the information is received and decimated and the tremendous amount of information flow through all the channels of communication, is making multitasking essential and inevitable, especially for the senior management and “C” level executives.

There is a feeling that the speed and diversity is causing an information overload. 

Is this overload reducing the efficiency and adversely affecting the quality of delivery of the executives.

One might think that constant exposure to new information at least makes us more creative. Here again, the opposite seems to be true. Teresa Amabile and her colleagues at the Harvard Business School evaluated the daily work patterns of more than 9,000 individuals working on projects that required creativity and innovation. They found that the likelihood of creative thinking is higher when people focus on one activity for a significant part of the day and collaborate with just one other person. Conversely, when people have highly fragmented days—with many activities, meetings, and discussions in groups—their creative thinking decreases significantly.

These findings also make intuitive sense. Creative problem solving typically requires us to hold several thoughts at once “in memory,” so we can sense connections we hadn’t seen previously and forge new ideas. When we bounce around quickly from thought to thought, we know we’re less likely to make those crucial connections.

While Human beings have worked to continuously increase the quality and speed of the communication in terms of distribution, reception and decimation, the communication mechanism in the Human Body has remained constant. In case of multitasking, while the executives switch from one task to the next quite fast, it takes longer for the brain to switch off from one task and switch on to the next. 

Hence the productivity of the executives is less in each of the multiple tasks they handle, when compared to the output when they are handling single tasks.

In a recent study, for example, participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence. The delay comes from the fact that our brains can’t successfully tell us to perform two actions concurrently. When we switch tasks, our brains must choose to do so, turn off the cognitive rules for the old task, and turn on the rules for the new one. This takes time, which reduces productivity, particularly for heavy multitaskers—who, it seems, take even longer to switch between tasks than occasional multitaskers

This is like a scourge for the “C” level executives. They need long uninterrupted hours in order to synthesize the information flowing in from different directions, different sources, They need time to reflect on the possible implication it could have on the organization and its bottom lines, they also need to deliberate on the quantity of the quality time that needs to be allocated, make judgments, work on possible trade offs.

This is not a new problem, although the intensity has been increasing by the day. Peter Drucker in his sixties famous book  “The effective Executive” has dealt with the problem in detail.

In the ancient Indian scriptures there is a mention of an art and profession named “Avadhanam”. This art is related to an act of absorbing large amount of information from number of sources (from eight to thousands), Ashtavadhanam (8), Shatavdhanam (100), Sahasravdhanam (1,000), and reproducing it back from memory any time during the event which runs for days together, amidst disturbances deliberately created by ringing of bells, and topic deviation, others. There are still some practitioners of this art in South India. And we remain awestruck by their skills memory power and knowledge.

(From Wikipedia)  View Demo video
Avadhanam is a literary performance popular from the very ancient days in Sanskrit and more so inTelugu (అవధానం) and Kannada languages. It requires immense memory power and tests a person's capability of performing multiple tasks simultaneously. All the tasks are memory intensive and demand an in depth knowledge of literature, and prosody. The tasks vary from making up a poem spontaneously to keeping a count of a bell ringing at random. No external memory aids are allowed while performing these tasks except the person's own brain, not even so much as a writing utensil.
Avadhani (Telugu: అవధాని) refers to the individual who performs the Avadhanam; the group who queries the performer are the prucchaka(One who asks questions, Telugu: పృఛ్ఛకులు). The first person to ask the question is called "Pradhana prucchaka;" he is the same as any other prucchaka except that, he asks the first question. The Prucchakas put forth questions to the avadhani, which are primarily literary in nature. The Prucchakas can optionally place additional constraints. Though it is not stated explicitly, conformation to Chandassu (Poetic Meter) is mandatory. Avadhani should answer them in the form of a poem. The literary questions generally consist of a description given in prose and the avadhani has to express it as a poem. The additional restrictions placed by the Prucchakas can be anything like asking the avadhani not to use a given set of alphabetical characters in the entire poem or to construct only a particular type of poem etc.

Most of the executives have a well-planned task schedule for the day, in the dairy. The problem is with the equally important unplanned unscheduled work that keeps creeping in throughout the day in the form of phone calls, emails, client meetings unscheduled travel, others. These are the greatest time eaters ever known. For every planned day’s work, you have two or three day’s unplanned work seeking your urgent attention.

In laboratory settings, researchers have found that subjects asked to multitask show higher levels of stress hormones. A survey of managers conducted by Reuters revealed that two-thirds of respondents believed that information overload had lessened job satisfaction and damaged their personal relationships. One-third even thought it had damaged their health.

After going through the case studies and examining the solid evidence that more than proves the negative impact on optimization, that multitasking has, It is better for the executives, managements, and the organizations to understand that quality work needs, quality time to be allocated, for quality delivery.

The senior executives need to be very discerning in selecting and ignoring the information according to its relevance to the task on hand. This is not easy because they need to go through every bit of information to keep them informed, and set aside the ones not immediately required. The senior executives should be able to develop a self-disciplined, monitoring and evaluation system by which they could apply almost every hour to check the quantum of delivery planned and the actual quantity delivered and make necessary amends immediately.

After perfecting this system for their work, the senior executives need to ensure that the same system is uniformly followed down the hierarchy. The executives down the line should be able to share bulk of the work of the senior executive leaving him with enough time to attend to the most important.

What is the solution to this problem?

A good filtering strategy, therefore, is critical. It starts with giving up the fiction that leaders need to be on top of everything, which has taken hold as information of all types has become more readily and continuously accessible. Rather, plain old delegation is as important with information as it always has been with tasks. It is very important to make people understand what information not to send. Especially the secretaries and assistants should be taught the astute filtering process. At the end of the day the secretary can send a small briefing about the mails received and not forwarded, so that the senior executive has the knowledge of the mails not forwarded.

There is no absolute solution to this problem. You cannot have a solution that is universal in application. In spite of the best solutions, the best executives may derive,

You will always have the executives pondering about

To be or not to be, that is the question

Probably Shakespeare created this famous soliloquy with today’s executives in mind. I already visualize the great playwright turning in his grave and having good laugh. at today's executive's predicament .

Please share your thought

Best wishes,


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