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Miss Burst vs. Miss Busy: Working Enough vs. Working at Capacity

My "The Cobalt Group" desk

There’s a mini-discusion on burst vs. busy work styles going on. The definitions are something like this:

The busyness economy works on face time, incremental improvement, strategic long-term planning, return on investment, and hierarchical control. The burst economy, enabled by the Web, works on innovation, flat knowledge networks, and discontinuous productivity.

Bursters see that opportunities to take 2,000 steps forward in one hyperleap are more likely to happen through connections with people outside the company.

Put another way:

There are people who work steadily and there are those who work in bursts

Now, I have a forked idea-train off this:

  1. Everything is OK, if the idea is about frequency of output.
  2. The Boss is Not Happy, if the idea is about who can do the “most” work in a given period.

Who Are We Talking About? The Boss

Now, the below is from the perspective of The Boss. The Boss wants to make sure the worker isn’t slacking off and “stealing time” from work.

The perspective of the worker is to work as little as possible (or “just enough” to be all “the glass is half-full”) and get paid as much as possible. Sure, the ideal worker wants to feel good about their effort/reward ratio, but they want that ratio to be as close to 1:1 as possible: otherwise the worker should be getting paid more if they’re doing more work than “expected.”

Frequency – Everything is OK

Good cooking takes time. If you are made to wait, it is to serve you better, and to please you. (*)

In this case, “bursters” are actually as busy as much as other workers, but they provide “output” less frequently than “busy-iers.” That is, Miss Burst might spend 2 days preparing for those 2,000 steps forward, but she had to spend all of those 2 days. Miss Burst couldn’t have just spend 1 day, two hours, or suddenly tripped down some productivity worm-hole.

So, if we take Miss Burst and Miss Busy, they’ll both do the same “amount” and “quality” of work in a given work week. Miss Burst will just deliver ever two days, coming out of her office, or even coming into the office, but she’ll deliver a chunk that’s of equal worth to the company as Miss Busy will. Miss Busy will be in the office, 8-5 with an hour lunch break, and only two 15 minute breaks, answers her email, sends off a status report every day, all that stuff. (Or, you know, in-between those two: just relax, the two are just extreme cases for the purpose of discussion.)

Once The Boss understands that Miss Burst is actually working towards those 2,000 steps during those two days, everything is fine from The Bosses’ perspective: they’re getting the same “output” from each employee.

(If you’re starting to chafe at the idea of “getting output” from someone, you’re thinking faster than I can write, hold up, friend!)

Lost Productivity – Problems

“Thank you for the free software, Mother! We will destroy the running dogs of Wall Street now!” (*)

If Miss Burst, on the other hand, can deliver her 2,000 steps in just one day and then spends the 2nd day shopping for underwear, The Boss is going to be less happy. From the worker’s perspective, this is cool: The Boss asked for 2,000 steps, I gave it to The Boss, now I can do something else.

Miss Burst thinks in term of projects and fixed capacity: she “owes” The Boss 2,000 steps every 2 days. The Boss, however, thinks in terms of owning all of Miss Burst’s potential productivity during working hours.

The sort of management point here is that The Boss is not interested in getting only a fixed amount of work out of each worker. The Boss is interested in squeezing out as much work as possible from each worker.

We could get all wrapped up in the long-term viability of this situation (it sucks!), but the US economy runs on short-term sprints of 3 months: the running dogs of Wall Street have no time for long-term thinking. (Besides, can’t we just hire a fresh someone else when Miss Worker goes cinder?)

So, taking on the mind-set of The Boss: if each worker — Miss Burst and Miss Busy — is expected to deliver 2,000 foot steps every week, and it takes Miss Burst just 2 days to deliver 2,000 foot steps, I’ll expect her to take the 3 other days in the work-week to deliver me at least 2,000 more foot steps. Maybe I should give her a raise or a bonus if the quarter goes well.

Put another way: if the Boss sees that you’re an efficient/good enough worker to have time to go buy underwear, The Boss is going to think “why aren’t they using that time to make The Company more money?”

Again, the mismatch in expectations between Miss Burst and The Boss is that The Boss believes that The Company owns all of Miss Burst’s time during the work week, if not 24/7.

What to Do? The Good Case

The point of this ongoing conversation is to connivence the world that Miss Burst and her work style (mine as well) are a-OK and acceptable. In both cases above, Miss Burst is wired to work in a burst-manner: trying to get her (or the rest of us bursters) to work in a Miss Busy way will result in us doing even less work. Sure, you could “fix” Miss Burst (or Miss Busy, going the other way), but that’d take time. Why not just can her and hire someone who’s already “fixed”?

So, if it’s the case that it’s just work style, and that Miss Burst is producing the maximum output that she can in those two days, well, then it’s just a matter of showing The Boss this and explaining it to them. (I say “just” in a sort of joking way.)

Everything is fine and fixed in this case, we’re done. But what about the other case?

What to Do? The Bad Case

But, if it’s the case that Miss Burst does not only have a different work style but can also actually do more, then there’s an almost impossible task of changing the world-view of The Boss. Namely, that The Boss is paying Miss Burst like they would a consultant, rather than an employee. (More likely to happen is The Peter Principal, but that’s another conversation.)

And that, to me, is the crux of the problem of Miss Burst as a “knowledge worker”. Now, knowledge work is a sort of judgmental term. What does that make all other worker? Stupid workers? “Information worker” is slightly better (vs. “uninformed worker”?), but I’m distracting myself…

If you’re going to deliver me, The Boss, a fixed set of steps, no matter what the time takes, I’d rather pay you as a consultant. Then, do whatever you want with that extra day: re-do your entire sock drawer(s), for all care.

But, if I’m going to pay you as a full-time employee, give you an office, pay your and your whole families’ health insurance, give you deference over contractors when we have to lay-off people, send you to yearly Come-to-Jesus meetings, and otherwise expect you to be what we used to call a “Company Man,” by God, re-do your sock drawer on your own damn time.

The FilterFresh Coffee Machine

Clearly, I see employment options like the above as a “game.” Not a fun game, but a game in the sense of one player winning over the other according to that player’s goals. If my goals are “steady employment” and a friendly machine in the “break room” to make me coffee, I’ll be an employee. If my goals are setting my own schedule, but delivering the promised work just as an employee would, I’ll choose the consulting angle and make my own coffee.

The Leopard’s Spots

That is, as Anne’s diction put it, the current paradigm: consultant vs. employee. The shift is to either make everyone an consultant (tompeters! would! flip! out!) or have The Boss happy with putting consultants on the payroll.

I’m not sure how you make the argument of “putting consultants on the payroll” as the bulk of current corporate culture is geared away from it. One of my old favorites, The Goal tries hard to make a case for similar change, though in manufacturing terms (and they also use foils instead of PowerPoint).

If a company can make the leap of faith that this new way is better and will make the company more money, maybe you could actually do some mind-judo and sell The New Way as a competitive advantage. But that only works when the market is up or Management is “just crazy enough to try it.” There’s probably something to learn from Toyota vs. Detroit, but Lean may not be the ally we’re looking for here.

In truth, I suspect the answer is that “full-time employment” for “knowledge workers” is probably a bit out-of-whack for this century. Information technology killed the cubical star. IT has sort of beat out all the chaff in the ranks of the information workers: now there’s just room for the hyper-productive and the rock-stars. And those people, friends, do better as consultants: why would they want to work in companies? Why be a Bodhisattva when you can have your enlightenment and pay your bills with it too?

Maybe full-time info workers are like behind-the-firewall, packaged software and consultants are like SaaS. In that metaphor hole, as The Boss, which would you rather have?

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Categories: Collaborative, Ideas, The Analyst Life.

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8 Responses

  1. Which probably makes me "SaaS behind the firewall" – and I'm not sure that works.

  2. The problem with paying the burst worker as a consultant it that the boss will NOT want to pay the burster the higher wage rate that consultants demand so that they can cover benefits etc. The Boss will want to pay the Miss Busy and Miss Burst the same hourly rate…

    The problem is that we've gotten away from the idea that employment is an economic transaction. I'm trading my time, talent and effort for some compensation. If I exceed that value I'm likely gunning for a promotion… I'm investing some extra time and effort in the hope of a future payoff. But companies have gotten away from seeing the employer-employee relationship as an economic one where each part gives the other equal value… they now expect that they can google us and judge what we do on the weekends, affect whether we can blog or not (even if the blog has nothing to do with the compnay or profession) and, damn it, we'd better check email on the weekend and vacation and have the cell with us.

    rick gregoryApril 19, 2007 @ 8:10 pm
  3. "IT has sort of beat out all the chaff in the ranks of the information workers: now there’s just room for the hyper-productive and the rock-stars"- uh maybe. seems like BigCos still have a lot of chaff. but it is only the beginning of the century

  4. In other news, I was reading the engineering take on the matter: Scheduling Algorithms for Procrastinators. The mathematical foundations for burstiness. From the abstract:

    This paper presents scheduling algorithms for procrastinators, where the speed that a procrastinator executes a job increases as the due date approaches. We give optimal off-line scheduling policies for linearly increasing speed functions….

  5. I'm going focus on my "area", programming and development.

    Is the meta-problem the old one that we don't know how to measure the productivity of programmers?

    "as The Boss, which would you rather have?"

    Write about the 2 kinds of bosses, the majority of which are the ones that want predictable outcomes. They'll go for busy workers, since busy workers prevent certain kinds of failure at the expense of failing to achieve certain things. Risk v. Reward.

    The one hole in this brilliant post is explaining the anectodal 10-1 productivity gap in top programmers – I'm not sure they fit into the bursty model (the handful I've been lucky to meet are consistently top notch).

    The counter to that is to say the Bell curve wins out – that there must be programmers out there who are fantastically unproductive and are costing their organisation many multiples of salary. They are probably as poorly identified as the rock stars.

    This is a brilliant post Cote'! Is providing advice into hiring part of Redmonk's thing? I think you should keep refining it until it becomes whitepaper material for all sorts of bosses – strategic guidance for a planet!

  6. Ric: apologies for suggesting your position is in danger for the second time 😉

    rick gregory: clearly, I agree with the thrust of your comment. When I've worked in large companies, it always seemed like the "behind-closed-doors" nature of career development was more a hamper than a help. Maybe that's just in the software work, but it seems like transparency is the better way, if perhaps more socially painful.

    Koranteng: long time no see, buddy! I'll have to check that paper out. Is it for reals, or a joke? From the abstract: I wonder if programs/computers that procrastinate are "effective."

    Bill: I'm glad you liked the post so much. I can't help, though, but say that the real idea started with Anne. There's a good point about the 10-1 productivity thing. I've always wondered if that's particular to coding or if that applies to all fields. Also, is luck involved? Or maybe manufactured productivity, e.g., those 10-1 coders built the system, thus understand it all, and thus can be much more productive. Or, are they just "gifted"?

  7. "I've always wondered if that’s particular to coding or if that applies to all fields."

    Sturgeon's law suggests it applies to all fields. I suspect why we're very aware of it in programming, is that it's the only field off the top of my head where pay isn't disparate in kind. Yes, I suspect they are gifted, the way top athletes are gifted.

Continuing the Discussion

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