Managing Knowledge Work (and Knowledge Workers)

by Bernadette Doerr and Coleman Ruiz

What’s the first thing that you do when you start work each morning? Do you open your email and scan through the newest deposits into your queue? Or hop onto Slack to check out the latest and greatest from your colleagues? Perhaps you read the newspaper and scan your physical mail from the day prior. Maybe you do all of these things at the same time — email, newspaper, Slack chat, snail mail, and feeds from other countless channels because you are a “multi-tasker.”

Whoa. Can we hit ‘pause’ for a moment?

If any of the above describes you, we suspect you’re a “knowledge worker.” Peter Drucker wrote about knowledge workers in his 1957 book Landmarks of Tomorrow, yet there is still no universally agreed-upon definition of “knowledge work.” Most agree that it requires non-routine problem solving. Those who do it are considered to “think for a living.” And the daily output of those workers cannot be measured by counting how many tangible widgets they have cranked out.

This presents a major challenge for those who are creating or managing “knowledge work”: if we don’t have widgets to track, how can we ensure that a worker’s time is spent wisely?

In the book Team of Teams, we discussed Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” philosophy. Taylor focused on making workers more efficient by studying and optimizing the way they completed individual tasks. This allowed him to assign metrics to each worker so as to compare workers performing similar tasks. His paint-by-numbers approach is no longer effective for the many workers who deal in complex and adaptive environments in today’s economy — and the interim iterations on his approach are merely variations on the same theme.

Measuring individuals’ outputs is now remarkably challenging because we lack clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable as a knowledge worker. As a result, many knowledge workers turn back to a Taylor-istic indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in as visible a manner as possible without focusing on how those activities affect the team’s top priorities.

So we’re left wondering: How useful were those efforts in driving outcomes that are ill-defined? With less clear indicators of the value of our outputs, how do we even determine what our inputs should be? And as a result, what should we focus on each day?

There is a simple answer:

Write. It. Down. Write it down! That’s it.

Every day, write down your top one or two initiatives that, when complete, all other tasks naturally follow. Maintain a relentless discipline on only those few initiatives. Really, that’s it!

Email and to-do lists are distracting marquees of interruption tempting us to do stuff. Not important stuff. Just stuff. Answering email and checking off things on a to-do list are simply exercises in activity, not productivity. We feel as if we’re getting stuff done. But are we really focusing on our goals defined as compelling outcomes?

What is out of sight is out of mind; what is in sight is in mind. Adopting a daily ritual of writing down your top one or two most important tasks for the day in a visible place is the single best way to design your day for optimal results. This consistent practice is the surest way to control your daily inputs, reduce distraction, prevent multitasking, and accomplish meaningful results.

Alex Ikonn and Uj Ramdas, authors of The Five-Minute Journal, say it best: “Spectacular results are a product of intelligent design and herculean consistency.” Your most powerful tools as a knowledge worker are a pencil, a tiny notepad, and focus. That’s true worker knowledge!