CXO

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.

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