Information rage

A recent study of employees at an investment management company found that they were interrupted 20 times an hour.

A recent study of employees at an investment management company found that they were interrupted 20 times an hour.

A recent study of employees at an investment management company found that they were interrupted 20 times an hour and were able to focus on a task for no more than three minutes.

I suspect the arrival of email, texting and social networking sites like Twitter are partly to blame. Certainly, when you see the email trail of a group of well-paid execs trying to fix a meeting or read the quality of the “tweets” quoted in the press – often by people who should know better – you do wonder how well these potentially excellent communication tools are being employed.

In principle, it is excellent that there are now so many ways of communicating – employees don’t have to spend so much time commuting to an office and can work from home, a coffee bar or wherever. Correctly handled, technology ought to bring a lot of freedom. Problems arise, however, because the sheer number of methods of communicating mean that the technology is “always on”. Execs feel that they can’t get away from it, even when they want to.

This is rubbish, of course: you don’t have to be a slave to technology. The number of emails and phone calls you get is not a measure of your virility. Since when did being incessantly interrupted act as a mark of your importance? In a board meeting or restaurant, presumably most of us would regard it as bad manners to be constantly looking at our BlackBerry.

The principle still exists – just – that outside communications can stop while you are concentrating on face-to-face time. The proposition that ‘I am always available for my clients at any hour of the day or night’ is usually flawed (clearly there are exceptions, such as if you are in the crucial stages of negotiating a multi-billion dollar deal).

It can be hard to ring-fence thinking time in today’s manic world, particularly when you have a company mobile in your pocket or bag. You may decide that meetings should not be interrupted. But what counts as a meeting? Board meetings? Planning meetings? Difficult chats with employees?

For me, it’s more than that – if I’m going round an art exhibition at lunchtime, that’s as important as any meeting for me, and it’s an appointment I don’t want to cancel. I can switch off for a while and it gives me a lift. Similarly, I was at a meeting on a Friday afternoon – it was my affair that my “meeting” was with my grandchildren and we were playing hide-and-seek. On the other side of the coin, I was sending emails up until 11.30 that evening. That’s my way of carving out some quality time and some thinking time.  

You may think this is unrealistic, but just look at the alternative and see where that gets you. Take two comments made to me by senior execs recently. One said, ‘I know you could make a big difference to my business, but I’m just too busy to even think about it at the moment’. But worse still was the remark, ‘I’m too busy to do strategy – I’ll do it when things quieten down.’

That’s scary; yet these weren’t idiots. These once-smart executives had become completely confused – such was the apparent urgency of everything, they could no longer see what was really important.

Creating some downtime isn’t just for blue-sky thinking – far from it. It’s for studying your market and your competitors: reading all you can about them; searching the web; playing “what ifs” (If they did this, how would I respond? If I tried that, what would they do?).

It’s also time for thinking about your clients’ customers. I’m sure in a recession you will be keeping close to your clients, otherwise you wouldn’t have survived the past 18 months. However, it’s staggering how little study there is of the end-user, particularly in consumer markets.

In the marketing services sector, clients couldn’t be more frenetic while driving fiercely hard bargains with their suppliers. Yet few of them have got into their customers’ heads and understood their hopes, fears and changing priorities in this long-running recession. Different groups of people are responding differently, and the old labels to describe people no longer work. Generalisations are often worse than useless, and it’s the profitable niches that need to be found. Also, what was seen as “recession resistant” six months ago may not be now.

So why are these opportunities being missed – this pivotal point where short-term strategy affects execution? It comes straight back to my earlier point. Although there is a colossal amount of “stuff” being done by management, it’s often the wrong stuff. Too many people are unable to differentiate between what is apparently urgent and what is important.

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram

Chris Ingram is a businessman, entrepreneur and art collector who was judged London Entrepreneur of the Year' in 2000 in the Ernst & Young awards and was founder of the CIA advertising agency.

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