You Are Not a Router. You Are Human.
Our organizations are becoming increasingly complex as the problems we try to tackle become more complex. Complex problems require more coordination, collaboration across people, and are often best tackled by teams distributed across cultures and geography. Combined with this organizational complexity explosion is the fact that information, and the ability to communicate it to others, is becoming so cheap as to be nearly free.
In the 1800s sending a piece of information to another human being across the country (never mind across the planet) required a significant outlay of time, money, and attention. Now? Click, click, tap tap tap, send. Congratulations, you just emailed hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people.
The plummeting cost of communication has been a huge driver of the modern world we are privileged to live in today. Increasingly, though, it’s also making it a nightmare.
Organizational complexity begets the need for more coordination and communication. Improving technology makes coordination and communication nearly free. See the problem here?
A perfect storm for information overload.
Many of us are silently drowning in the irrelevant and overwhelming information that our work and lives generate and throw at us. A non-trivial part of our jobs has become sifting through piles informational garbage looking for the bits of gold that let us do our job.
We are operating as human routers — pushing around and organizing bits of information but not actually doing anything useful with it.
The Overwhelm of the Push Culture
A Push culture is an organizational approach to information management (in the loosest sense of the word) where nobody is quite sure who needs what information, so everyone sends everyone else everything. If you’re CC’ed on emails and you’re not really sure why you’re probably operating in a Push culture. The sheer volume of the information you’re hit with on a daily basis often results in a general dulling of the senses in terms of discerning what is truly useful. Instead of being sensitive to important information our eyes glaze over and we get really good at ignoring nearly everything (including the good stuff).
The ironic aspect of this type of culture is that organizations who operate this way often think they’re “being transparent” by sharing information so gratuitously. In reality, it’s transparency in name only.
Very little useful information is shared and when it is it’s so buried as to be nearly impossible to find when you need it. That’s not transparency — that’s lip service to the idea of transparency.
The Dream of the Pull Culture
On the other hand, a Pull culture is characterized by the ability of people in an organization to easily and quickly find whatever information they need for the work they’re doing. Information is viewed as a tool that can be utilized in specific scenarios for specific ends. Nobody is trying to cover their ass politically by CC’ing everyone they “think” they should be “keeping in the loop” or inviting people to meetings even though that person isn’t actually doing any of the work. People are trusted to find and use the information they need on their own and they know where and how to find what precisely what they need.
Unlike a Push culture, a Pull culture is truly transparent because anybody can go in and find the information they need for any reason. It’s not being blasted at them indiscriminately but is easily accessible by those who need it at any time.
Information keeps its useful edge instead of becoming a blunt weapon that slowly bludgeons us to death.
If you’re mired in the depths of an extreme Push culture it probably seems like something impossible to escape. While a true solution requires everyone who works with you to change their mindset around how they deal with and share information there’s actually plenty you can do to start using in a more sane direction.
Embrace New Tools
Much of the bad behavior a Push culture cultivates stems from the tools we’re using to communicate. Email is by its nature an extremely siloed medium that we have hacked together into some kind of proto-group messaging tool.
Slack (and other software like it) are definitely a step in the right direction. It allows you to break streams of conversation into discrete channels that you can dip into as needed instead of managing a tidal wave of emails that are being shot at you because someone somewhere thought maybe you should be informed. Granted, it’s easy to let Slack get overwhelming, too, but at least you actually have some control over whether that happens.
If you’re collaborating with other people on documents and are emailing Word or Excel documents back and forth you and your team need to get with the times and use Google Drive (or something like it) where you and a group of your colleagues can simultaneously edit the same document. No more terrible version control file naming conventions (FINAL FINAL FOR REAL THIS TIME v2.12.docx). This is the 21st century — we don’t need to live under a paradigm of physical paper that only one person at a time can work on. Insanity!
Push Against the FOMO
Fear of Missing Out is a powerful feeling. It’s the basis of why so many of us have been so content to live in this world of Push madness. Bring on the notifications! Bring on the emails! We like feeling like we know what’s going on.
The process of figuring out what information you truly need isn’t necessarily easy but a good first step is to start cutting down on the stuff you know for a fact isn’t helping the situation. I’d recommend starting by unsubscribing from every email newsletter you don’t anxiously look forward to, every mailing list you don’t feel compelled to read when it arrives, every automatic update email you receive from social networks or other online services, and turning off the vast majority of the notifications that bombard your computer and mobile devices on a minute-to-minute basis.
Revel in the relative silence for a little bit and you’ll start noticing the stuff that matters. If you can get through the discomfort of the quiet you will come out the other side with a greater appreciation for the distinction between signal and noise.
Being willing to push back against information overload is a brave act. It requires courage to willingly “miss out” on conversations or other information in the name of protecting your sanity, time, and attention to do better work. I worry that our organizational cultures have moved so far toward the Push end of the continuum that we don’t even realize there’s another option.
But there is.
We can be autonomous and capable adults who reach out to get the information we need to make an impact on the world. We can be confident enough to know that we have the option to consciously say “no thank you” to the information processes that only exist to stroke our ego by making us feel involved and important.
We can trust our colleagues and we can trust ourselves to Pull the information we need instead of Pushing overwhelming bullshit at each other all day long.
The organizations that make it easy for their members to locate and use the information they need to do great work while simultaneously turning off the tap of institutionalized overwhelm are going to unlock new levels of potential in their employees.
When you get back the time and attention that used to be allocated to acting like a router you suddenly have the chance to be something else — a human.
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