Musing about work patterns and wasting time

Sometime in the early 1980s I heard this (probably apocryphal) story about Pablo Picasso:

The legendary artist was sitting quietly at a boulevard cafe in Paris, when his reverie was rudely disturbed by a passing tourist. Said tourist gushingly asked Pablo if he would run off a quick sketch for him, promising to pay for the privilege. The great man acquiesced, pulled out a biro, dashed off a portrait of the tourist on the linen napkin conveniently placed on the table, and smilingly presented it to him. Awed and deeply gratified, the tourist asked “How much?”.

And Picasso said “Fifty thousand and five dollars”. Awe and gratitude very quickly became conspicious by their absence, as the tourist asked “What? How can you ask that for twenty seconds work?”

And Picasso replied “Five dollars for the napkin, the ink and the twenty seconds. Fifty thousand dollars for the forty years practice that preceded it.”

I have no idea as to just how apocryphal the story was, but I remember being struck by it when I heard it. The principle mattered to me. Why?

Probably because it made sense to me, it fitted with my then worldview. The only employment I’d known until then was as a journalist. Much of that employment was with my father, at the (family-owned) economics-and-finance weekly.

The work pattern was predictable and enjoyable. Monday to Thursday it was about reading, chatting with each other, meeting people, chatting with them, having meals with people, chatting with them. Exchanging information, enriching information, learning, observing, and recording. Early Friday was largely spent synthesising.

All this activity was done “in the head”. No names, no pack-drill. No notes. [Those were the days…]. Then, later on Friday, the week’s issue began to take shape, as I pounded the standard “any colour you like as long as it’s black” Remington and my father stayed with his preferred greenish Smith Corona portable. The double-spaced A4 sheets went to the printers, came back as galley proofs, and the corrections were sent back. Some to-and-froing went on, and usually by late Friday we were at page proof level and the issue was being made up, ready for print in order to make the Saturday morning franking. Occasionally, things didn’t quite work according to plan, and we needed to get down to the press, make the shift from the world of QWERTYUIOP to that of ETAOIN SHRDLU. Hot lead time, no time for page proofs, check the metal type as it came off the Linotype machine. It taught me something about deadlines and about agile working, I guess. [But that was in another country, and besides, ….]

I’ve always considered myself a “knowledge worker”, so I’ve never really understood any other form of work other than the types described above. Characterised by periods of apparent inactivity, sudden and intense bursts of sustained output, a crescendo and then another period of calm. The periods of inactivity were leavened by punctuation marks of conversation and of learning.

We’re deeply immersed in an information age. An age with information available on tap and on firehose, in an event-driven world with almost-random peaks and troughs. An age where the knowledge worker is now the dominant type of worker. Where time-shifting is possible and distance is dead.

We’re deeply immersed in an age where the permanence of employment is a myth, where global sourcing of talent and of markets is common, where partnering is an imperative, where openness and collaboration are table stakes. The walls of the firm have become porous, as the distinction between consumer and producer, between partner and competitor, between employee and contractor, all these become more and more blurred.

We’re deeply immersed in an age where the lines between professions are blurring, where the structure of the firm moves from hierarchical to networked, where the critical factor is time more than anything else. Time.

We’re deeply immersed in an age which could not be more different from that of the assembly line.

Yet we continue to pretend that we live in a “clocking in” world, where the focus is on attendance and steady-state workflow.

Otherwise we would not use terms like “wasting time”. Have you ever seen Thierry Henry play at his peak? The days when that exemplar of head-up football would slouch around the ground for 88 of the 90 minutes, but pack such magnificence into the other 2 minutes that nothing else mattered? Like Michael Jordan, I guess he understood something about being “in the zone”. Henry wasn’t wasting time as much as biding his time, waiting for the right opportunity, or for the right time to create an opportunity. And being “in the zone”.

An expert knowledge worker focuses on being “in the zone” more often and more sustainedly than his peers. He uses his passion and his ability as a base, and trains hard and learns hard.

An expert knowledge worker is paid for services rendered, not for turning up. The scarcer the service is, the higher the premium payable. The scarcest services are the ones that need considerable investment in time, coupled with both natural as well as nurtured skills. At the point of rendering the service, it is all about the quality of the output rather than the perceived effort expended. But, as Stephen recently pointed out, we haven’t quite found a way of marrying this approach to the accounting process.

More later. Incidentally, some months ago, Anne Zelenka wrote a very good piece on Busyness to Burstyness that is well worth a read in this context.

A coda. We’ve all heard the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”. When I saw what Remington used to do, I could not help but think “The typewriter is mightier than the gun”…. even if they are both Remingtons.

5 thoughts on “Musing about work patterns and wasting time”

  1. Dear JP,

    Picasso was a genius in many aspects of his life. I personally respect most of his work. He has another story about hard-work:

    When a journalist asked him if the muses paint for him, he replied, “yes, but I have to be with the brush every day waiting for them.”

    Experts are like artist, we pay them for the vision they have and for the talent to make it real. We cannot count this in seconds or meters.

    Mario Ruiz

  2. I agree that results achieved rather than time spent on a task should be the test of effectiveness for a knowledge worker, at least in theory; but in hierarchical organisations, especially large ones, the goals are so often too unclear for this to work. What then happens is everyone falls back on the ‘hours at the desk’ test. Because this is no longer relevant, many knowledge workers end up pretending to work, as per this rather good article in The Times:

Let me know what you think

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