Tuesday, February 08, 2011

An Environment of Interruptions

In these disparate environments—cockpits and hospitals and IT workgroups—the right behaviors did not evolve naturally. Nurses weren’t “naturally” given enough space to work without distraction, and programmers weren’t “naturally” left alone to focus on coding. Instead, leaders had to reshape the environment consciously. With some simple tweaks to the environment, suddenly the right behaviors emerged. It wasn’t the people who changed, it was the situation. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

The above paragraph is taken from Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. The chapter is entitled "Tweak the Environment" and the subject is interruptions and their impact on performance. Statistics show that we are interrupted, on average, every eight minutes. Not only do we lose time due to the interruption itself, but the time to recover, to regroup our thoughts, and get back into the flow of our work can often take more time than the length of the interruption itself.

To make the problem worse, we live in a world that gives us more and different ways to interrupt each other. We carry phones in our pockets and whip them out when it is convenient for us. We give little thought to what the person on the other end might have been doing. We live in a culture that looks upon an "open-door policy" as a good thing.

Let's face it, to get anything done, we have to have uninterrupted blocks of time. I talked about this subject and how we can each carve uninterrupted time for ourselves in this post. But what if we are the leader of the organization? What if we are in a position to tweak the environment?

School leaders are in such a position. As a principal, we made necessary announcements at one time first thing in the morning, and then the "all call" feature of the intercom was not to be used again for the rest of the day. Every time the intercom comes on, instruction is interrupted. When a parent wanted to talk to a teacher, going into the classroom to interrupt instruction was forbidden.

Minimizing interruptions was a theme that resonated even during the summer when constructing the schedule. In elementary schools, students leave their teacher for physical education, music, and other specialties, in addition to going to lunch. Where possible, we put two specialties back-to-back, giving the teacher the largest blocks of uninterrupted time possible. the last thing we wanted was for a teacher to get his/her students back and have only 10 or 15 minutes with them before the class had to go somewhere else. Such a situation would only result in wasted time every day. 

Every good thing we do for our students is done through the dimension of time. Preventing interruptions helps us get the most out of the time we are given. Protecting the time of our colleagues helps them be more productive. We can and we must "tweak the environment." The right behaviors are then sure to follow.

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