Beware of the Cult of Busy in Company Culture

Have you ever met people that tell you of their many, many important meetings and duties and the long, long hours they work? And people that constantly want you to take care of their request NOW, because the client is super important and it’s super urgent and can’t possibly wait? Often these groups have considerable overlap.

These people make me weary as I supect them to be worshippers of the Cult of Busy as described by Scott Berkun:

“When I was younger I thought busy people were more important than everyone else. Otherwise why would they be so busy? I had busy bosses, busy parents, and always I just thought they must have really important things to do. It seemed an easy way to see who mattered and who didn’t. The busy must matter more, and the lazy mattered less.

This is the cult of busy. That simply by always seeming to have something to do, we all assume you must be important or successful.

It explains the behavior of many people at work. By appearing busy, people bother them less, and simultaneously believe they’re doing well at their job. It’s quite a trick.”

To these people “being busy” seems to be an end in itself. Something that reflects their and everyone else’s worths. The problem is, that “busyness” is NOT an end in itself at all. At least for me it’s true that on the “crazy-busy” days, it doesn’t feel like I get anything done. It’s the occasional quiet afternoon, during which I get my important, more strategic work done.

So, be very careful what you wish for value in a company culture: If you appreciate developers for dropping everything and coming to your aid with an IMPORTANT client request, getting busy right away, then that’s what you’ll get. If the NEXT really important request comes in before your old one is solved, then yours will be the thing that’s dropped:

Nothing will ever finish – At least if the “you have to drop everything and help with this”-addressees are the same people that are working on longer-term issues. Developers can’t do both: be frequently interrupted and get things done. Even less so if many of the interruptions present new requests and projects. Before you know it you’ll have three dozen things in various unclear stages of progress – half-implemented, not tested, not deployed, undocumented, …

Does anyone really want that? Busyness instead of real solutions? I for one take effectiveness and deployed software over efficiency and an air of busyness any time.

Ironically, I think that not even clients can want developers to drop everything. They will demand it, for sure, but in the long term they won’t be happy once they notice that many of their requests are never finished and that there are no bigger updates. In the end, they’ll probably switch to a competitor whose culture values deployed software more than immediate reactions.

Disclaimer: I’m not talking about real emergencies where your service doesn’t deliver its core value, but the myriad perceived “emergencies”. Do you really have to start right now? What happens if you don’t?

Explicitly decide what constitutes an “emergency” that warrants an interruption and carefully choose what you praise people for – busyness and fast reactions or results.

PS: Just noticed that “business” and “busy” share a root. Would the business world change if it was called “resultness” or “outcomeness” 😉