Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Relevance Ratio

As another bit of speculative, observational humor let me introduce you to the Relevance Ratio.

What it is:

Consider where you are sitting right now, and the last task you tried to do there.

Now, consider/remember the information around you on all sides. The posters, conversations, sounds, words, materials.

Pretend you measured this information content and assigned it a number like maybe 100 (just to make the math simple).

Next, look at all that information content and determine how much of it is not relevant to the work you are doing. Do you have posters? Clutter? Radio? A television playing? Reminders of other work to do? Clocks (not pomodoro)? Dilbert posters? Are there things you have to reach around or past in order to do your work? Consider it all. Do you have a coffee cup? That's information too -- because it urges you to make a beverage decision. Candy dish or lunch box? Food decisions.Say it's a 60.  About 60% of the information in your view has nothing to do with completing the work you're doing.

60 out of 100 percent of your information is irrelevant? Then we assume that the other 40% is related to your work today. 40% relevance ratio.

Yes, it's just another way to say signal-to-noise ratio. It's just applied to your environment.

Why would you do this?

I have been talking to people about their environment. Usually it goes to the seating arrangement.

Some people claim that they are only productive in a closed office by themselves. 

Others are best when sitting in an open floor plan (bullpens or pods) with their coworkers.


Now here is where the observational comedy comes in: I really don't know.  Not a clue. No study has been done that I know of, and all I have is anecdotes and personal experience. 

So this is an idea. A hypothesis.

To wit:

Solo workers tend to want to be alone, and teamworkers tend to want to be with their teammates.

Nobody wants to be seated closely (in cubicles or open floorplan) among people who have nothing to do with their work.

For solo workers, the relevance ratio in a team space is amazing low. While isolation removes distraction, it also ensures that they are starved of relevant signal as well.  Excessive isolation means that other people are not aware of the quality or quantity or importance of the work being done and can easily be suspicious and check on the solo relentlessly, which lowers the relevance ratio by stopping the work for status reporting.

Solos often resort to chat and email to try to reconnect with people whose work is relevant, but who are not in the immediate area (boosting the relevance ratio).  

When a collaborative team worker (sharing tasks, goals, results with teammates) is isolated, the lack of signal is a real problem. It's better in pods or bullpens, provided that they are seated near people who are sharing the work -- so that the relevance is high.  Of course, they are highly visible and can be seen collaborating and often serendipitously joining conversations where they can be of aid to their colleagues. 

So What?

The interesting idea here is that maybe we can get more done if we tap into the kind of work (solo or collaborative) afforded by our environment, or (better, and perhaps more radically) change our environment to support the kind of work we need to do. 

I am sitting in a space with moderately high signal. I have three screens, and cheat sheets, and writing utensils and such. Also, I have a window into a wooded yard and am in view of my water bottle and coffee supplies. Sadly, I'm also nested in with clutter and noise that distracts me. A bit more relevance in my surroundings I have learned will help me focus -- or I can concentrate until I don't notice those things.

That concentration is wasted willpower and wasted mental energy which I could use for making better decisions and doing better work. It's an annoyance. 

So, I'm thinking of how to increase the relevance ratio in my space, and I will be embarking on a quick clean-up to make that happen.

Is irrelevance bad, though?

Will you be only 40% effective? Nah. Focus is not everything. You need to be reminded to drink water, stop for a snack, remember the next meeting, see your family's smiling faces. That refreshes you and reminds you of your purpose and place and physical being. We don't want you to be a machine, but a whole person.

A cartoon or two may remind you of your values and your view of the world, and to keep good humor about yourself.

Certainly a fan creates some noise, but that is white noise which masks quieter distractions while keeping the room at a comfortable temperature so that you're not distracted by thinking about how hot it's getting.

Is the person in the next office/cubicle/seat chewing potato chips/crisps with their mouth open while clipping their nails? That's distraction. Some amount of the irrelevant information is unwanted. Likewise, are your neighbors talking about a project that you have nothing to do with? A sport you don't follow? God forbid, politics? Probably not useful.

This idea is interesting, because it has some explanatory power and some predictive power and it seems that paying attention to it is helping.

But there are no guarantees. It's just an idea.

I'd love to hear both supporting and dissenting views -- have you tried manipulating or monitoring your relevance ratio?