Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Prioritize Me! Assembling and Breaking Routines in Complex Work

Organizational scholars are fascinated by routines because they are the core of organizational efficiency. People working together learn how to improve their work, especially in repeated work with measurable consequences. All routines are not equal though. Factory workers can become fabulously productive because their routines keep being examined and improved; many low-level service workers or administrative workers can also do well. The exception is often highly educated professionals, especially when working in teams. Their outputs are too complex to measure accurately, and there is not much repetition to allow improvement. How can they still work efficiently?

Clues to the answer are found in research by Waldemar Kremser and Blagoy Blagoev published in Administrative Science Quarterly. They looked at how consultants working on a civil construction project struggled to keep a steady workflow and meet deadlines. They found that the intermingled project tasks, meetings, interactions, and deadlines created a complex environment that made execution of routine work difficult even when the routines were well-known. Still, the consultants knew the importance of routines and efficiency and applied a sequence of solutions to make progress.

The first-priority solution was to follow the normal sequence of tasks, which is exactly how routines are normally done – when one task is completed (by you or someone else), start the next one in the sequence. But timing conflicts often made demands on the consultants that interrupted sequences, which led to the second priority: follow the deadlines and work on tasks labeled as urgent. Sometimes the second priority was not good enough either because multiple tasks were urgent, which led to a third priority: work on tasks requested by the person filling the most important role. 

Each step along this priority chain reduced efficiency, and the consultants knew it. Nevertheless, the steps were followed because deadlines have a special status, and ignoring important people is a bad idea. The result was an ecology of tasks that added up to progress, though often with inefficient execution because some consultants had multiple requests that needed to be done in sequence, some consultants had to wait, and many routines were torn apart because the normal sequence of actions was interrupted by deadlines or requests from high-status coworkers.

Was the result enduring inefficiency? Actually, two graphs in the paper show that the consultants learned how to deal with these time conflicts over time. One graph shows that acute time conflicts peaked soon after the start of the project and were significantly reduced after that. The other shows that the solution of catering to the most important roles took up more than half their time initially, but after consultants made adjustments, the time spent on this effort was reduced to less than one-fifth thereafter. After consultants got through that initial adjustment period, they split their remaining time equally between sequence-based and timing-based prioritizing.

Compared with work done by an assembly-line worker, the inefficiency documented here is staggering. But keep in mind that these consultants are creating and applying routines to generate never-before-seen output, and much of the inefficiency originates in the deadlines. Deadlines are a well-known enemy of efficiency, and so are complexity and novelty. Thanks to this research, we now know more about how professionals working in teams handle these challenges.

Kremser, W., and B. Blagoev

2020 "The Dynamics of Prioritizing: How Actors Temporally Pattern Complex Role–Routine Ecologies." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.