Thursday, May 22, 2008

Focused or Fragmented?

Communication is easy these days. With one quick e-mail or one quick phone call, you or I can get the thought that is in our heads to the other person.

Is that a good thing—or a bad thing—or both?

To fully answer the question, I think we have to look at the scenario from the receiving end. How many e-mails are you getting during the course of a day? How fragmented do you feel as the result of re-focusing your attention from one topic to the next?

How truly significant are those e-mails? If the author had to wait a day before sending it, would the significance still be there? Would he have thought through the problem in his own just a little more before asking you to solve it for him?

How truly significant are those phone calls? Just because the person on the other end had a few spare seconds in the grocery store line and a thought in his head, does that mean the thing to do is interrupt something potentially more significant you were doing?

As I look back over the past decade at what really “worked” for me, the “Friday Memo” was one of those key elements for me. As an elementary principal, I composed a one-page memo and placed it in the mailbox of every employee every Friday. On that one page was everything I needed to tell them for that week. Announcements, birthday greetings, calendar events—they were all there. What did not make it on this week’s Friday Memo waited until next week. Save the Friday Memo throughout the year, and you had in one place everything I had told you all year long. Not sure how much a box of copy paper was going to cost when requisitioned from the central office? Look back at a Friday Memo from the fall and you find your answer.

A year into my principalship, we established e-mail accounts for our faculty and staff. The Friday Memo, however, continued to live. Why?

Even though I am a digital person and quickly latched on to the benefits of e-mail, I realized its ability to fragment communication.

How well can the average person put his hands on information from e-mails or phone calls? My experience is “not very well.” E-mails tend to be fragmented bits of information. One line of substance is accompanied by a paragraph of pleasantries and an obligatory closing.

What if we were to hold off for a moment on that e-mail? What if we were to wait a day of so and include several questions in that one e-mail? What if we waited to make that phone call and called tomorrow to talk about several topics? What if other people did the same for us?

What would it take for all of this to happen? In my way of thinking, it would require us to have a system that would trap those thoughts. Rather than making the phone call to get the thought off of our minds, we could let our system take that responsibility. Rather than fire off the e-mail because something was one our minds, we could let our system handle that responsibility.

Please do not get me wrong. I am all for picking up the phone on the spur of the moment, but not to simply transfer the responsibility for some bit of data from me to the other person. Meaningful, enjoyable conversation on the spur of the moment. That is something I enjoy giving and receiving.

More later on the Friday Memo and its digital replacement—the blog!
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