Time Boxing and Attention to Detail

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Management speak is full of fluff and contradictions. Consider the two skills below that I had found on a job description a few weeks back:

  • Ability to multitask, time box activities effectively and jump to unexpected urgent tasks when necessary.
  • Attention to detail; willing to do what it takes to ensure high-quality results.

The above translates to:

  • You will be allocated more tasks that you can handle and not even let you finish them because we will always dump something new on you at the last minute.
  • Considering point (1) you will have to take work home and work on weekends since the proposed headless chicken work setting will not allow you to finish anything not even to a minimum standard.

No, this wasn’t a CEO role but a senior tech job; it was “maker” rather than a “pure management” role. My advice is to avoid roles like this like a plague; no matter the money, no matter the brand’s prestige.

See, obtaining high-quality results in any discipline is not a choice between mediocrity and professionalism. It isn’t a personality trait such as an eye for detail. The level of mastery that is required for delivering rock star-level results require focused time investment—in some cases spanning multiple years—even before executing the concrete task at hand itself. Furthermore, every task has a natural life cycle that cannot be compressed (without compromises) out of management sorcery such as time-boxing or agile nonsense like two-week sprints. Mozart started playing at the age four but he composed The Marriage of Figaro when he was reaching his thirties. You get the point.

If you had asked Michelangelo to time box The Last Supper to 6 months—it took him 4 years—the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie would have had a mural done “faster and cheaper” but it would have been one more mediocre mural—among hundreds. In the real world, we cannot afford to let the makers' imagination run wild unconstrained all the time but we need to make a good effort to understand the natural time that it takes to acquire a skill and then apply it to accomplish a concrete result to a given standard. I will not expect an encryption scheme superior to SHA-2 or a video compressor that beats H.265 to be devised in two weeks. High quality work cannot be timed boxed.

In conclusion, time boxing might be a necessary evil in our Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times world but if anything, it is the friend of mediocrity and the worst enemy of attention to detail.