Keep Your Successes Secret: The Best Workflow Innovations Are the Ones No One Else Needs to Know About

If you discover the secret to success at work, should you tell everyone else? I have always thought the answer was “yes, and see if you can get your breakthrough approved as a conference presentation, too, for your resume.” But this week I’m meditating on the reasons you may want to try some innovations without sharing them, at least at first.

After a year of the pandemic, everyone on my team is dying for a break, or just some balance. We talk about zoom fatigue and burnout in almost every departmental (zoom) meeting. So I assumed that if one of my colleagues stumbled on any good methods for restoring sanity, I’d hear about them eventually. Instead, I discovered recently that one of my colleagues has been working from 8am-4pm for most of the past year (the rest of the team works from 9am-5pm) and my knee-jerk response was “Why didn’t she tell anyone? Is that even allowed? Why can’t I do that?”

After a moment, I realized that my pinprick of frustration with her small innovation was completely unjustified, firstly because I want to drink tea at eight am, not start my workday earlier. But more importantly, she’s already been working this schedule for twelve months and I haven’t even noticed, so what possible basis could I have for objecting to her schedule modification? She gets the work done, so it doesn’t matter to me how she does it.

I mulled over my reaction as I finished reading A World without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, by Cal Newport. While the writing itself frustrated me at times, I could fill months of columns with the ideas this short book sparked. In a nutshell: email is making us miserable and less productive and there are methods which organizations and individuals can employ to avoid some of these detrimental effects. I’m not yet ready to write about how the book has changed my work, since I only finished it yesterday while drinking my morning pot of tea. I need to let the book’s ideas marinate and see which ones work for me over time. But the concept that’s already stuck in my mind is the idea that our innovations don’t need to be public. It would be wonderful to be the brilliant sole-decision-maker for a flexible, well-funded startup. Then I could implement the ideas of this book wholesale and see what works for my team. But I’m a librarian, supervised by a department manager, supervised by a library director, supervised by the law school dean, etc. (and I supervise no one).

How can I change the way I work without generating pushback? If I implement one of the book’s suggestions, like choosing certain days or times to do administrative tasks and turning off my email during other times for full-focus work, how will that be received? The author points to the brief popularity of auto-reply messages saying things like “To increase productivity, I check email daily at noon and 4pm so don’t expect a reply before then.” According to the book, these emails popped up all over the place a few years ago and then quickly fell out of fashion. He theorizes that it’s because the messages are frustrating to the recipient. While the average sender of an email won’t mind if they don’t get a reply until your designated email-checking times, they don’t need an auto-reply email reminding them of your great innovation in time- and email-management when they’re just struggling to get through their day, thank you very much.

For a more concrete example of an internal change not requiring external input, the author introduces the scenario where an IT department wishes to complete repairs in a streamlined ticketing system. The ideal method for the IT department would be to require each user to fill out a form specifying the issue and perhaps an urgency level for the repair. The form results could then become a ticket directed to the next IT professional who has time to complete the repair. But I (the person with the broken computer) can’t find the form and can’t be bothered to remember how to contact IT using their preferred method. Instead, the current method simply requires me to send them an email and then the IT department makes my email into a ticket. (My library uses a similar ticketing system to deal with research requests, which often arrive by email but can be imported into the ticketing system by the librarian rather than the requester).

My colleague was able to change her work hours without my notice, ergo her innovation did not affect or concern me. For all I know, my colleagues already check email at designated times or stratify their work day into blocks of focused time and email time, as suggested by Cal Newport, and it’s never affected me. If the IT department changes ticketing systems, I won’t notice as long as they can still repair my computer swiftly. When I implement all of the book’s innovative strategies and become wildly productive, I’ll share my secrets eventually (and surely at a conference), but I won’t be putting them in my auto-reply email. The best systems are the ones that don’t require anyone else to know about them in order to succeed.

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