Leadership optimize

The challenges of being an abstract thinker in a work oriented world


I occasionally have a problem. Well, okay, I've got lots of problems and very few answers. Anyone who reads my blogs regularly knows that. However in this particular case I must admit that I have a conceptual problem with the kind of work that I do. You see, I'm an abstract thinker working in a very detail oriented field.

By 'abstract thinker' I do not necessarily me that I'm prone to navel-gazing and daydreaming . I am, but that's a whole different topic. No, I fear I have one of those minds which looks at a situation and immediately tries to break it down into its originating principles. I like to know not just "what" and "how", but "why" and "in what way does this all align with one or more idealized theories no one else has ever heard of or expressed any interest in." I not only like that kind of thing, I thrive off it.

This abstraction is great for working though process problems, identifying needs, and working out how a given social/political/technical system works. It is not as useful for keeping track of dozens of little, nagging tasks which need to be accomplished before the end of the week/month/meeting. It's great for understanding how a situation reached a crisis point and how to progress through it. It fails miserably when trying to piece through long strings of mostly working code or servers with one setting out of alignment.

Unfortunately abstract work is not all that common in the world of a technical project manager. We spend the majority of our time facing problems like "what happened to that order" and "what work were we doing again" rather than probing the deep questions of technical architecture, project methods, or approaches. The daily grind mostly consists of long activity lists, most of which probably mean something and likely need to be managed. Occasionally we get to explore the joys of project scheduling, resource allocation, and even user support...all detail rather than principle oriented activities.

There are positive ways to deal with this other than than bellyaching , though I must admit the later represents another favorite pastime. The simplest is to take a few minutes every day to organize my abstract thoughts into concrete actions. A more complex approach involves spending several hours each week cloistered with Compendium, steadily diagramming my thoughts until I come to an actionable item.

The simple approach involves inverting the old time management standby of spending a few minutes at the beginning of each day to organize your thoughts. I spend a few minutes at the end of each day jotting down notes about things I observed at work. The resulting nearly random collection of comments then forms the basis from which I build the next day's task list. Sometimes this leads me down rabbit-holes. Other times I get kudos for noticing the hidden things others missed. Mostly it just keeps me sane, or at least acting sane, while trying o stay in business.

The more complex approach involves disciplined thought about not just what I can see but what I should do about it. The first is easy; my oracular skills are fairly highly developed. The second requires quite a bit of effort on my part. I don't naturally think in terms of what I can do to change a situation. However, trying to come up with one practical action out of all the diagrams and flow-charts I draw in a given week has proven to me that it is possible.

Maybe someday I'll be "when the rubber meets the road" sort of person. Until then I'll just keep trying to adapt.

6 comments
Jaqui
Jaqui

in that while I like to figure out what the real cause is and solve that, my years in Hspitality as a cook taught me how to keep current tasks on time as well. cooking meals for paying guests means you have to get it right as much as possible. They won't be back if you don't The "deadlines" for cooking range from 30 seconds to 20 minutes on cooking times, yet you can have multiple items that are needed at the same time that are at either end of that range. [ multitasking to the extreme ;) ] As crazy as it sounds, a few months in a kitchen as a cook can help most people, in opst industries, improve their multitasking.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

I am very much like you in this... I too frequently find myself thinking, "What is my problem?". Really, it's just the way my mind works and that is not necessarily wrong. It's nice to know I am not the only one!

pizadro
pizadro

Thank you. I am the same but younger. Im a HS Conceptual Physics teacher that hates grading.

yeoman
yeoman

It seems to me that this interesting contribution may have been mis-categorised under ???Project manager??? as some of the attitude appears to be antithetical to project management and the work mentioned sounds more like day-to-day operations (???daily grind???) rather than project management (please refer to PMI???s Project Management Book of Knowledge for distinctions between projects and normal processes). Project Management is about (among other things) determining the ???why??? of the project we are doing up front by establishing the business case and documenting it. This is the big picture ???why???. Of course there is room here for abstract thinking. If our project is to build a bridge we can ask why build a bridge instead of a ferry or improving the road to the nearest existing bridge. Once we have determined the business case and clarified the concept we then determine the work required and the time and budget available. This covers the time, cost and quality aspects of project management. Room for ???why??? thinking again in that there are many ways to skin a cat (or build a bridge: what kind of bridge, which design, what materials, what suppliers?) The other functions come into play: people management, communications management, risk management and procurement management. Lots of opportunities to ask ???why???. Why this person instead of that one? Why this contractor instead of that? What are the most effective means of communication on our project? Who needs what information? What risks do we face? My point is that we do as much thinking up front as possible, get that into our plans, and when all have agreed and approved, execute the plans. Not that we do not question things along the way, but most of the ???whys??? will now be micro-management and minute things. Why does A have to wait for B to finish? Why do we need to get supplies from location C instead of location D? Why were certain things not done? If there is a communications problem is there another way to ensure someone gets the required information? Lateral thinking can help us do things better, or even do better things. Everything is subordinate to the plan we agreed (subject to Change Management). The project manager???s job is to execute the plan and complete the project. All abstract and other thinking will be geared to achieving the objectives within time and cost and to the required quality. From my point of view there is no ???daily grind???. There is instead a steady march towards the goal. Like a long-distance runner we count down the laps remaining.

Smedley54
Smedley54

There's nothing quite like being an abstract/random thinker in a concrete sequential world. Thanks for the survival tips!

pizadro
pizadro

I am a Conceptual Physics teacher that hates grading. You have provided definition to my life with your descriptions of yourself. thank you.