Monday, January 17, 2011

Lessons from Vancouver #1- Routine Tasks

I was in Vancouver skiing this last week and as with any trip being out of my element bubbles up new thoughts and angles to various ideas. This is part 1 of lessons learned.

In Anthropology no one is allowed to write about their own culture, because to do so is impossible. You can't write about anomalies from within your culture. In fact, an anthropology paper written on Americans by a Chinese man is very different from one written by an English woman because the perspective has shifted. On a more personal level, in our life or work we do routine tasks. Things that we do everyday. These everyday tasks at one time began because they had meaning and value. As something is thoughtlessly repeated over and over again it can start to lose all of its original value to the point where it is defined by its completion rather than by its value.

Let me give you an example. I was told to finish my plate at dinner as a child. The original reason for this was that my parents didn't always have enough food so to them wasting food wasn't an option. If they didn't eat it they may not be able to eat later. The pantry wasn't always stocked. So I did and still find it hard not to eat everything. The problem is that at a restaurant, where portions are high, this can cause overeating. The original meaning of the task (conserving food/no guarantee of your next meal) doesn't even exist anymore. And yet growing up an overweight child was told to finish his meal.

Or a work example. In audit you look at accounts that are material to the financial statements. This will change from year to year based on company activity. Your workpapers should change as a reflection of this, but often a team will accumulate more and more paperwork to be completed every year. The old workpapers still in the binder have lost their original value (to explain a material balance) and instead exist because it is what has always been done.

That's why it's important to explore habits. Never do things because they need to get done. Nothing needs to get done unless the value in the task at that moment is defined. When trying to illicit change often times you can find a culprit in a habit that you have created that no longer offers the value it once did. Shed the old habits once they no longer serve their original purpose and find something better.

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