In Which I Have To Critique One Of My Intellectual Heroes: Or, Why Cal Newport Is Wrong

I’m a huge fan of Cal Newport’s writing. I read Deep Work the day it came out from cover to cover in less than a day. I read it four times in total in 2016. I’ve read So Good They Can’t Ignore You twice and have given it as gifts to multiple younger brothers and friends. I think his take on the deliberate cultivation of attention management skills is generally on point and a voice of reason in a very noisy world. I’m a huge fan of the digital minimalism idea he espouses and I think I would be a much more creative and productive individual if I could internalize more of his ideas.

However, I think I’m starting to see the limits of Cal’s experience as an academic in his writing about how work is done in the corporate world.

In his latest article, “An Early 20th Century Lesson on the Difference Between Convenience and Value” he shares a story about how the Pullman Company improved productivity by making it more difficult to communicate and coordinate across the organization. The ultimate “turns out” (“Everything you thought about a thing is actually wrong!”) story in a world that’s rife with email and Slack and instant messages, right?

It’s dangerous to take this story too literally or extrapolate it too far.

Much of the work I do at The Ready is helping organizations understand that they aren’t in the early 20th century anymore. The world in which the Pullman Company operated in the early 1900s is so radically different from today and extrapolating elements of their organizational operating system into our own organizations (organizations that probably aren’t manufacturing luxury train cars) should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Communication doesn’t need to be fluid in an organization where the economic forces aren’t as radical or rapidly changing as they are today (e.g. no Internet, less globally intertwined supply chains, less globalization, slower pace of business overall, etc.). The challenges organizations face today are often caused by broken communication. Departments that ought to be working together in tight cross-functional teams instead exist in functional silos that never talk to each other. Complex questions and conversations that many could value from are locked into individual’s inboxes — potentially useful information locked away in email purgatory.

In complex organizations its impossible to always know who specifically needs to know what piece of information so instead we push our clients to “default to open” and “work in public” and move their informational ecosystem to one where people can pull information as needed instead of being bombarded with an information avalanche. For all its faults, Slack and other tools like it can help enable these shifts in working that weren’t needed in the early 20th century but are allowing the firms of the 21st century to cope and thrive in a thoroughly VUCA world.

We should all continue taking Cal’s attention management advice on the individual level but we should also be wary about taking over simplistic views about what it means to work together in the 21st century. There’s a certain romance and elegance to looking at how things used to be done and applying those lessons to how we work today. And in some cases, there are valid ideas we should reinstate. But it’s important to remember that the business world of today looks very different from the business world of 100 years ago.

In many cases, the organizations who are upgrading their organizational operating systems are the ones navigating this uncertain and complex world better than those who are locked in the past.

Every day I try to come up with something insightful to say, write it, and publish it in less than 30 minutes. This was today’s effort. Have feedback? Leave a comment below or get at me on Twitter.