Responsiveness and response-ability

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June 27th, 2017

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A friend of mine was recently negotiating flexible working hours in a new senior leadership position.  While we were sharing our mutual assumptions about what “working from home” really meant, we seemed to agree that what you wanted from your team, and yourself, if you were working from home, was instant responses to work emails or calls.

It was only later, as I was reflecting on this on the journey home, that it struck me that we had both fallen into the trap of equating responsiveness with response-ability.  And that the fact that someone in a senior leadership position was instantly available for work calls or emails, meant precisely the opposite: that they didn’t have enough to do, or perhaps that they were worried more about what image they were projecting to their work colleagues, than about prioritising their work to suit them and their commitments.

There’s been a spate of well-documented research, going back a few decades now, that, if interrupted in a work task, it took people typically between 10 and 20 minutes to get back their original focus.  And this is discounting the fact that a call or an email might actually require switching between tasks rapidly, and therefore never completing any one of them to the best of our ability.

When did we, as a society and as organisational leaders, start valuing responsiveness over response-ability?  How come we often value an immediate response way above a more thought-through one?  When did we become the equivalent of overgrown toddlers who want things now, and scream inwardly if someone seems to be making us wait?

The growing and pervasive culture of 24/7 access, to people, services and responses, seems to make us increasingly willing to take the first response we get, and value speed over accuracy or reflectiveness.  So that we could speedily move on to the next task, and the next response, without pausing to think, reflect, and choose properly.  It is almost as if, we as humans have gradually all been pushed into becoming sprint racers, where the only response if we’re flagging is to move faster.  As if we have failed to realise the futility of competing with machines and technology, which can do most things faster than humans, but few things better or more creative.  As if we have forgotten that technology was there to assist us in the first place, and we are rapidly becoming slaves to our former assistants.

The only tasks that can be completed quickly are the tasks that don’t require much thinking, or creativity, or collaboration, or innovation.  And is it any surprise that creativity, collaboration and innovation are increasingly being seen as the true differentiators of 21st century businesses and their leaders, at the same time when we are doing everything in our power to maintain conditions that prevent exactly that.  When we are valuing responsiveness over response-ability.