Busy and/or Bursty?

Adam Carson just alerted me to Anne Zelenka‘s sharp post characterizing ‘busy’ and ‘burst’ approaches to work. The former is characterized by a focus on being ‘in your place’ in all appropriate ways —  at your desk during working hours, in your place on the org. chart, etc. The latter is characterized by an abiding lack of concern for one’s proper place and a great emphasis on fluidity —  geographic, organizational, collaborative, etc. This fluidity, it is hoped, yields great bursts of productivity in response to needs as they arise.

Zelenka’s post and many of the comments in response to it acknowledged the need for both busy and burst, and the difficult necessity of finding a balance between the two within companies. I think this is a very important topic, and I look forward to hearing what others have to say about it. In particular, I’d love to hear about successful ‘balancing acts’ between the two that readers have instituted, participated in, or seen.

One interesting challenge that companies will face if and when they embrace burst-y approaches to organize work is how to measure and monitor it. Hardcore burst advocates would probably respond "Measure it based on results, and don’t bother trying to monitor it while it’s in process. To do otherwise reflects a lack of understanding of burst." 

There are a couple problems with this response. First, the obvious danger of giving a bunch of bursters a job to do and a suite of E2.0 tools to do it with, then sitting back and waiting for the great output is that it might never come. This can be mitigated somewhat by paying them only on delivery, but this is not always feasible (it’s tough to do with employees) and isn’t that smart in situations where the output is critically important. Second, a philosophy of ‘we put smart people together, get out of their way, and don’t even try to stay on top of what they’re doing’ can be extremely dangerous. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out a while back in The New Yorker, this was almost exactly Enron’s explicit philosophy. Gladwell calls this the ‘Talent Myth.’

So it’s far from clear what’s the right mix of busy and burst, but it’s pretty clear that both extremes are far from optimal. Tell us what you think —  where’s the happy medium, and how do we get to it from where we are now in our workplaces?