More Information, Less Overload
"There are always more things trying to grab your attention than you have time for," says Sam Aparicio, CTO at Angel.com. "You are trying to have the maximum possible impact that doesn't drive you insane, the most bang for the buck for the hours you are committed to working."
Aparicio wrote recently that "The #1 job of a CIO is employee productivity." I spoke with him about his strategies for remaining productive and enhancing the productivity of others in the face of the information overload we all face in our professional and personal lives.
Two things from our conversation really jumped out at me. One, that a lot of the info-tsunami comes in the form of email. And two, that with the right tools and presentation, an exec can have access to more information without being overwhelmed.
Clearly, the boss has to be plugged in. "CIOs primarily work through others, they measure their impact on an organization through the impact of their team," he says. "I find it critical to have an awareness of what my team is doing - to diagnose issues, to know when someone is stuck, to reason clearly about priorities, and to minimize the friction that collaboration creates."
Aparicio makes use of wikis and social media tools, including products from SocialText, and follows the GTD methodology. He can track his projects, projects for various teams, who owes him what by when. Information on deliverables (e.g., builds, releases, milestones, etc.) creates a trail of documentation. That used to mean a torrent of email, on which he'd be copied; to know what really mattered, he had to read each one, decide if opening an attachment was worthwhile, rinse and repeat. With a wiki, information is posted and shared by default, and he can check it as part of his regular work-flow. "My email is drastically reduced," he says.
Another email reducer is instant messaging, which is used for informal conversation and for persistent topics like operations, which run live all day. A manager can plug in and listen at any time.
Yet with email abated, the amount of information he's accessing is if anything increased. "The possibility of missing important information that you must respond to is part of what creates the overload," he says. That stress is ameliorated, as the wiki is a less intrusive way of being copied."For me, the wikis have a stream of consciousness feature," he says. "There's a shift in the model of working. I get a summary email every day of changes in wiki, I know from the titles a sense of what's getting done, and I can click a link and dig deeper."
The software allows him to create different filters through which he can view information -- from a project perspective, say, or that of an individual. "Reducing the amount of information is something that's outside of my control," he says. "What's effective is creating a set of filters that really match my priorities." The larger benefit is the emergence of an "ecosystem" in which managers know how he works, and begin to work in the same way, "so eventually everyone becomes a bit more organized."
"CIOs have a very special mission in terms of employee productivity. Find what made you productive, and try to make it possible in the organization. No other executive can do that the way you can. A lot of CIOs do things that hurt others' productivity -- saving a few dollars on a smaller monitor, saying you can't work remotely. But everybody has information overload, and there are people in the organization who are solving the problem better than others; find them and spread it around. That's a way to greatly increase your impact in the boardroom."
Aparicio also carves out time to head to a coffee shop and work offline on projects that require concerted effort and concentration. "I need two uninterrupted hours to focus on things that are hard to do in an office," he says.