Olivier Lacan

Software bricoleur, word wrangler, scientific skeptic, and logic lumberjack.

Stop Controlling Traffic

Written on September 11, 2012

There’s a fundamental problem in the way most work environments encourage interruptions. I find it’s vaguely similar to the way well-intentioned people stop their vehicle to let someone cross the road, because they think it’s the courteous thing to do. At best you’re breaking the traffic code, at worst you’re risking this person’s life because you cannot — in fact — control traffic, and a vehicle who hasn’t seen the pedestrian starting to cross the road may very well pass you and seriously harm or kill them.

But you just wanted to be nice.

For many workers, the notion of being “in control” implies having what they consider urgent addressed right away. I’ve noticed this sort of regression to the mean in the way people tend to interact with their co-workers, whether they are hierarchically on the same level or not. People who were asked to do something, just got something done, or need to get something done will display the most callous behavior towards other people’s workflow simply because they can’t bear the thought of being stuck or not telling people — right now — about something they’ve just done.

“I need a minute of your time for this.”

“You need to take a look at this.”

“Just so you know, I took care of that thing for you.”

Shut up. Just. Shut. The. Fuck. Up. Your brain is grasping for reassurance, for feedback, and you’re not even noticing that you’re trampling on people in the process of trying to acquire that feedback.

You don’t” need a minute of their time for this, you probably need five or fifteen, but you don't need them right now. You can leave them a note, an email — maybe even an instant message if you think it really warrants it — and they will get back to you at the optimal time for them. That time can be optimal for you as well, provided they don’t interrupt you callously while you’re in the middle of another task. But you assume that’s going to happen, because that’s just the way you would do it.

They don’t need to take a look at this. There’s no rush, unless you’re an EMT or a soldier. Nobody’s life is on the line. They can look at this later, on their own time, and get back to you with remarks if need be. Move on to your other task, drop this one off, keep moving. Quit controlling traffic.

They will know that you took care of “that thing” for them, eventually, it doesn’t need to be now. You do not need to tell them right away and feel be satisfied that they recognized how useful you were. They wouldn’t have asked you to do something for them in the first place if they didn’t think you were in fact helpful. You will get the satisfaction of them noticing on their own that you accomplished what they asked of you, and you will not prevent them from accomplishing something of their own in the process.

This may seem like a rant, but I sometimes wonder if these counter-intuitive notions can be taught to everyone. I have been the guy who constantly interrupts people for feedback and reassurance. It took a fair amount of listening and reading about people’s experience for me to notice that I was doing something wrong. Somehow, few people will complain directly to you when you’re breaking their flow. They will just accept it as the ransom of collaboration. It doesn’t need to be that way.

People can collaborate without asphyxiating each other. They can have parallel workflows without the constant need to collide.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t ask questions, it simply means there is always a time and a place for questions to be raised, reassurance to be given, and thumbs to be shot in the air. Learn to respect other people’s flow.