The Silo of Focus

FocusHow often, in our careers, are we told to focus on one thing at a time? I would guess I see some message about this, such as the image to the left in this post, at least once a week, if not once a day.

In general, I agree with the sentiment. If you really want to get something done, do it, rather than doing a lot of things at once. The reason for this, I think, is because multitasked work tends to result in half-work, which is something to be avoided at all costs.

Avoid half-work more than anything. Do not imitate those people who sit long at their desks but let their minds wander. It is better to shorten the time and use it intensely, to increase its value, which is all that counts. Do something, or do nothing at all. Do ardently whatever you decide to do; do it with your might; and let the whole of your activity be a series of vigorous fresh starts. Half-work, which is half-rest, is good neither for rest nor for work. via Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life

But there is another side to focus we need to be wary of as engineers — particularly, in fact, as engineers. It’s easy to become so focused on a single problem that we lose sight of what we were trying to do in the first place. To put it more precise terms, we can focus so hard on something that we end up building a silo. And silos make you stupid, as illustrated in the difference between the Sony Walkman and the Apple iPod (via Financial Review)

There are a number of things a company can do to break up its silo’d structure; this has been an area of study for a number of years, and from a number of different angles. The article in FR, for instance, mentions using anthropology as an entry point in prevent companies with silos. But what about on a more personal level? Of all the silos you can be trapped in, the most dangerous is a silo of one. How can we, as individual engineers, avoid this silo? Some suggestions.

First, stop talking to engineers all the time. I know it’s pretty pleasant to talk to engineers, as they tend to talk the same language as you do. But if all your friends know what interprovider option C means, you need some new friends. Seriously. There are two great places to start in the endeavor: in your actual local community, and in your company. Seeking out people in your community might mean you need to develop some interests other than engineering—but that’s the point, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be sports, by the way. In my case it’s philosophy, shooting, and a few other things I have an interest in.

Within your company, you need to be intentional about finding reasons to connect with other people. In all honesty, I find LinkedIn a better way to find interesting people inside the companies I work for than the internal directory, or just asking who people are in meetings. Other social media might work better for you—but whatever the means, break out of your department and get to know some people.

Second, read more stuff. I know I’m like a broken record on this score, but, seriously, folks… If the last thing you read that wasn’t either fiction or engineering related was in college or high school, you need to find a library or something. A little economics or philosophy or ethics or religion or… whatever—it’s not going to kill you. Honestly. Check out my 60 books page, and go past the engineering tab. I record most of my book reading on LibraryThing (in fact, looking at my reading you’re going to be startled to find I read very few technical books).

Third, find someone you disagree with and listen to them. I know this is hard—there is so much stuff out there you do agree with that you probably feel like you don’t have time to waste on people you think are complete dolts. But, you see, if you think that way you’ve already succumbed to the silo. Find someone you think is really the opposite of you — politically, religiously, technically, or whatever else — and really try and figure out what they’re saying. Don’t just get halfway through and say, “oh, they’re just an idiot.” If you don’t understand the argument they’re making, or they make logical mistakes, don’t shut down. Work through it, put the best spin you can on what they’re saying, put some time and effort into it.

One of the worst attributes of our social media driven world is the five minute hate cycle we’ve gotten in to—a perfect illustration of focus taken to the level of a silo. We have a horrible habit of calling someone hateful, ignorant, stupid, or evil just because they don’t agree with us. It’s a habit we need to break.

Fourth, be intentional about learning stuff that’s outside your area of expertise. We’ve talked about this before here, so I’m not going to go into detail. Instead, I’ll just point you at that post. Go read it (or read it again, as the case might be).

Don’t get trapped in silos. Definitely don’t get trapped in a silo of one. Silos make you stupid, and the silo of one is the stupidest silo of all.