Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 4;   January 27, 2016: Virtual Clutter: Part II

Virtual Clutter: Part II

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Thorough de-cluttering at work involves more than organizing equipment and those piles of documents that tend to accumulate so mysteriously. We must also address the countless non-physical entities that make work life so complicated — the virtual clutter.
Artist's conception of an asteroid belt around the star Vega

Artist's conception of an asteroid belt around the star Vega. The clutter we've already observed within our solar system would create problems for high-speed (near-light-speed) interplanetary travel, because the travel itself would lead to collisions with the interplanetary clutter. Clutter in the space between stars is much less dense, but nonetheless problematic, because vehicular speeds for practical transit times would necessarily be much higher. In any case, moving quickly through space can be trouble because of the clutter that permeates space.

So it is in most organizations. Moving anything — a new initiative, a new hire, a new policy, a new product idea — moving anything rapidly through the virtual clutter of a typical large organization is challenging. If it's possible at all, it can require severe compromise to the integrity of the initiative, or an accumulation of political debts that burden the initiative's champions.

Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The cost of virtual clutter is surprisingly high because most virtual clutter is outside our awareness, and because we don't track its costs. For example, switching between medical insurance plans is typically a complicated process that requires spending company time consulting with Human Resources. De-cluttering this process would reduce costs, but since we don't track those costs, we can only estimate the savings.

The savings from de-cluttering any one process is probably small, but in a typical enterprise, there are hundreds of cost sources traceable to virtual clutter. In Part I, we examined some enterprise-scale sources of virtual clutter. Let's now examine virtual clutter occurring at the team and group level.

Meeting agendas
Agenda clutter causes us to overrun meeting times, or to deal with important items superficially. Agenda clutter also causes cluttered attendee lists. To execute a cluttered agenda, we require attendance by some who have little to contribute to most of the agenda. Since we don't know the exact time when when we need these people, they mostly just sit and wait.
That's why cluttered agendas lead to cluttered calendars, which make meetings difficult to schedule, creating delays in product development and elevating enterprise costs.
Project portfolios
Project portfolios tend to grow organically, rather than by design. Portfolio clutter, or incoherence, can manifest itself as resource contention, effort duplication, failure to exploit deliverables of other projects, failure to exploit lessons learned, and so on.
Coherent The most prolific source of email inbox
clutter is likely that we send too many
messages to too many people who have
too little interest in their content
portfolios "make sense." They exploit commonality of both resources and technologies. They have themes that span both inputs and outputs of portfolio projects.
Library clutter
Some organizations still have libraries for employees to use in their work. In these libraries, book clutter (physical or electronic) consists of all those items few people have ever read or even referred to. Some items are so outdated that they're worthless. In most organizations, "User's Guide for Word 2.0" probably is an example of clutter. If anyone ever needs that information, they can get it from the Web.
Eliminating library clutter requires some content expertise many librarians might lack. The populations served by libraries can help with de-cluttering.
Email messages
The most prolific source of email inbox clutter is likely that we send too many messages to too many people who have too little interest in their content. Some of the problem is cultural, some is due to the similarity of the commands "Reply" and "Reply All," and some is due to the difficulty of learning how to direct our email clients to filter and file messages automatically.
Coordinated action is likely required. Organizations that train their people in the properly focused use of email can gain some control of the email torrent.

Noticing virtual clutter is difficult. It takes practice. When you find a piece of clutter, ask "How did it come to be here?" and "If I remove it, what can I do to prevent its return or replacement?" First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Patterns of Conflict Escalation: Part I  Next Issue

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