Following is an excerpt of a panel discussion with Seth Godin and Peter Drucker.
(Well, maybe the panel discussion didn’t really happen; but the quotes are all real, just juxtaposed just to provoke dialogue).
Green: Seth, how’ve you been? What excites you lately?
Godin: I sat next to Cory Doctorow at a conference today. It was like playing basketball next to Michael Jordan. Cory was looking at more than 30 screens a minute…I’m very fast, but Cory is in a different league entirely.
Green: Mr. Drucker, what do you make of that?
Drucker: We rightly consider keeping many balls in the air a circus stunt. And even the juggler does it for only ten minutes or so before dropping the balls. I have yet to see an executive…who could not consign something like a quarter of the demands on his time to the wastepaper basket without anybody’s noticing their disappearance.
Green: Mr. Drucker! Are you suggesting Mr. Doctorow is wasting his time?
Drucker: Most of the tasks of the executive require, for minimum effectiveness, a fairly large quantum of time. To spend in one stretch less than this minimum is sheer waste. One accomplishes nothing and has to begin all over again.
Green: Gracious! Seth, is this phenomenon something new in the world?
Godin: This was never a skill before. I mean, maybe if you were an air traffic controller, but for most of us, most of the time, this data overload skill and the ability to make snap judgments is not taught or rewarded.
Green: Mr. Drucker, you’re frowning. 🙁 What do you see wrong with multi-tasking?
Drucker: Man is not particularly logical, but man is perceptive—that is his strength. The danger is that executives will become contemptuous of information and stimulus that cannot be reduced to computer logic and computer language. They may become blind to everything that is perception (i.e. event) rather than fact (i.e. after the event). The tremendous amount of computer information may thus shut out access to reality.
Green: Seth, is this a real trend, regardless of what Mr. Drucker might think of it?
Godin: As the world welcomes more real-time editors working hard in low-overhead organizations, I think it’s going to be a skill in very high demand.
Green: Any particular areas of business for which that’s true?
Godin: If you’re busy marketing like you’ve got my attention, you’ve already made a huge mistake.
Green: So, marketing must keep it in mind. Mr. Drucker, does multi-tasking hurt some judgments more than others?
Drucker: Among the effective executives I have had occasion to observe, there have been people who make decisions fast, and people who make them rather slowly. But without exception, they make personnel decisions slowly and they make them several times before they really commit themselves.
Green: Mr. Drucker, any parting words of wisdom?
Drucker: If there is any one “secret” of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.
I once shared a speaking platform with Seth, never met Drucker. Both are wise and provocative.
Seth’s comments are weeks old; Drucker’s date from 1967.
Is there a conflict here—or not?
I think it’s folly to suggest that of two such fine thinkers, one has to be wrong. More likely there’s an over-arching perspective.
The median level of multi-tasking capability has certainly got to go up across the board as we get more complex. At the same time, the ability to divorce from multi-tasking when it’s required is also going to get more valuable. He who can do both will be very successful.
Think about trust. Do you more trust a multi-tasker, or someone who totally focuses on you? (Right answer: we trust those who multi-task most of their life, except when they’re with us—when they pay attention.)
Massive parallel data processing makes you a massively good data processor. It doesn’t do much for your relationships or your effectiveness with people. How do you react when your six-year-old multi-tasks with you on the phone when you call home from the road? Do you really think you’re hiding it from your clients as an adult?
The world will be wildly more connected in future, but connections still happen one person at a time.
Drucker called efficiency the goal of the industrial age, and effectiveness the goal of the knowledge age. That still sounds modern as we head into whatever you want to call this age.
By the way, read FrogBlog for someone courageous enough to experiment on himself just a few months ago.