The "In" Box

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan. 1995

Years ago I had to do an assignment in some management course called the "In Box" exercise. You were given a sheaf of correspondence simulating the actual mailbox that you might have to handle in everyday business. The box had to be emptied in something like 15 minutes, with every item having been answered or acted upon. Whew! Anyway, I remember finishing by the time limit -- mostly by delegating almost everything to fictional subordinates.

That was the theory. As in most everything else in our profession, the practice is something else again. Over the course of some few weeks my desk gets piled high with stuff where I have no idea what, if any, action should be taken. I think wryly that some large percentage of this stuff has arrived at my desk through delegation from higher level managers who are much better than I am at the "In Box" exercise.

I am very envious of these skilled managers. My own desk looks sloppy and untended. Frankly it looks.. well, academic. And while the sloppiness of my own desk makes me acutely uncomfortable, I have the opposite feeling when I am a visitor in someone else's office. I love to visit offices where the piles are worse than my own. For example, I am very comfortable at most universities, where you can hardly find a place to sit down in a professor's office. I feel at home with the yellowing, teetering piles of unidentifiable papers and journals. I bask in the warmth and potential of old and undiscovered knowledge.

In contrast, when I visit the offices of corporate executives, the ambiance makes me increasingly nervous. There is too much organization. The second law of thermodynamics has failed in its promise of increased entropy. In fact, I have developed over the years a mysterious, but firm, rule. The higher the executive, the emptier the desktop. In the limit of this rule, when you reach the top of a large corporation sometimes even the desk itself disappears. The drawers are gone, and all that remains is an ornate antique table, whose top is marred only by a small notepad. The executive has mastered the "In Box" exercise.

In these corporate heavens I feel the uneasiness of living in the equivalent of an information refrigerator. The intellectual warmth of academic chaos is gone. I worry that if someone shuts the door, the light will go out. Whatever happens to their mail, I wonder? Clearly, a subordinate routes it to me, where it dies a terrible death in some unexplored pile on my own desk. When something important fails to get acted upon, there will be someone to blame. It is obvious to me who that someone will be.

Returning to my own office, one glance is sufficient to reaffirm my inadequacy. How could I possibly become the CEO of a large, multinational corporation in the face of this manifestly obvious indecisiveness? Even so, I resist the temptation of recursion -- copying the material in my "In" box to forward to a handful of subordinates in a frantic pyramid scheme. I hunch my shoulders in resolute stubbornness. The buck stops here, I tell myself. Whatever these items are, they cannot be allowed to circulate indefinitely.

At times I have practiced another art taught in that old management course. On each item in the mail I diligently write a filing subject. The items are all transferred to my dusty "Out" box. I feel good. I have accomplished something. My desk is clean, and I appear to be ready to head a large corporation. I go home at peace with the world. I too could buy an ornate, antique table.

Through the years I haven't had this satisfied feeling very often. The truth is that I haven't been very skillful or diligent at filing. I have often felt guilty about this, but recently I came upon an article written by a sociologist which provides the ultimate rationalization. It describes the conclusion of a research project that studied the information handling activities of a number of guinea pig executives. What the sociologist discovered was that in the overwhelming majority of cases, once an item was filed, it would never be seen again.

It seemed to me that this research indicated that business life was best described as a passing stream of consciousness. In other words, life is real time, while filing is like batch processing. All that matters is what you see at the moment and internalize by integrating the into your own mental world models. What is in your files -- paper or computerized -- matters not. Whether it is food or information, you are what you eat. Your computer can know everything, while you are, alas, an idiot -- albeit an idiot with an ornate, antique table!

The general rule of "out of sight, out of mind" (or never in the mind, as the case may be) may be generalized to other activities. When I was in college I was a terrible note-taker. I envied students who had copious notes to study for exams. It was decades later before I learned to take good notes myself, and experienced the revelation that I never looked at the notes after I had taken them. The important thing was the taking of the notes in the first place, which forced the organization of the material into a form consistent with my own knowledge structures. Now I realize how unimportant the notes themselves were. I suppose everyone knew that but me.

The question is whether this insight about the value of stored material applies to organizations as well as people. Is the value of a corporation in its archived information, its intellectual property, its system and processes, or in the minds of its employees? More and more, I suspect it is the latter.

Now I look at the pile of stuff in my in box and I feel all right about it. I know what's there, and that is all that counts. That's what I keep telling myself anyway.

Robert W. Lucky