Barefoot Corporate Warrior: Spring 2022
Paul Bird explores the modern Divisions of Labour and suggests a Spring Clean to provide new energy and freshness.
“Division of labour, the separation of a work process into a number of tasks, with each task performed by a separate person or group of persons. It is most often applied to systems of mass production and is one of the basic organizing principles of the assembly line.” – Encyclopedia Britannica.
One of the fathers of modern economics, Adam Smith, famously illustrated the concept of the Division in his 18th century treatise The Wealth of Nations by outlining the 18 separate processes required to manufacture the humble pin.
He pointed to the potential for manifold productivity increases (number of pins produced per day) by adopting such a system.
It makes perfect sense to us now that assigning tasks based on experience, skill and natural tendencies, at work or in the home, will get the best outcomes.
Prior to the creation of the assembly line what makes perfect sense to us now was obviously not a widespread practice of early civilisation.
Our modern interpretation on this theory is impeccable isn’t it? The best people for the best job producing the best outcomes etc.
As an observer of my own and others’ behaviour however, I see this beautiful theory come unstuck in daily life when human frailties and emotions intervene.
Economic theories often ignore the human dimension and so it is with The Division; it can also produce soul-destroying repetition which can undermine creativity and the joy of life.
Have you ever found yourself performing a task, at work or home, and find yourself wondering: “however did I end up here doing this”?
I have felt like Alice in Wonderland several times over the years tumbling down, down a rabbit hole of tasks and choices and ending up in a place which is both unfamiliar and unpleasant.
The performance of tasks and how well we do them, impacts upon our quality of life at all levels – physically, mentally and emotionally, as well as spiritually.
Our willingness and ability to perform these tasks also impacts on our self-efficacy which is a key feeder into self-confidence and mental health.
Life sometimes seems to be one endless (production?) line of tasks, a ceaseless birth-to-death manifestation of our natural restlessness as humans.
I am not saying that the experience of performing tasks are always negative. They are of course absolutely required in order to take care of the basics – shelter, food and water – and also for the higher pursuits of self-actualisation – the fun and revelatory stuff.
The Division has offered us much in return for its downsides.
Our civilisation, and all that it offers us here in this lucky country, is founded upon – and functions because of – our unrelenting task identification and completion. It is in our DNA.
Some of the tasks we end up doing are purely accidental in nature; they have been assigned to us by others seemingly randomly; or we somehow seemed to show a propensity for that particular type of task – or perhaps nobody else put their hand up and if we do not do them they won’t get done at all.
I am not talking about delegation as this involves power structures and we have all been on the end of that process where we are told to do something, sometimes against our better judgement.
I am talking about The Divisions that may build up over time between ‘equal’ partners, career or personal.
Some tasks are assigned following discussion and analysis about who is best placed, by experience or time availability, to do a particular job. How grown-up.
Assigning tasks like this is always best, in my opinion. The goal is to play to each person’s strengths and minimise weaknesses (the risk of failure) by spreading the tasks for the best outcome.
My experience is that this happens – every now and then.
More frequent however is the “power of random” where the wrong people end up doing the wrong jobs. Familiar?
Undertaking tasks which are outside our experience or comfort zone can have poor or even disastrous consequences. Conversely it can be the ‘making’ of you.
This “power of random” is at its most intrusive and destructive when the jobs that no-one wants to do, the ones that are important but will fall between the cracks if left alone, end up being done by someone who is rubbish at them.
Sometime that someone is you. Yes, I know it is hard to believe. It takes a fair level of self-awareness to admit that you are not the best person for the job.
Our old travelling companions Pride, Control and Resentment play a part here.
It seems to me that a Spring Clean of your Divisions of Labour can provide new energy and freshness. Are there tasks which you are performing at work or in the home that you will never be good at, or from which you recoil? Is there someone better suited to do these, or at least have a go? Can you swap tasks?
Some Divisions analytics might help. Write down all your jobs and how well you are doing them, whether you like them and whether they should go elsewhere. Are there jobs being done by others that you would enjoy doing and for which you feel better suited?
Sometimes we end up doing things purely as Labours of Love, because we know they will ease the burden of someone else who we care about.
We may need to grit our teeth and shoulder our way through these jobs as they bring their own, different rewards.
There is a perverse nature where the higher the irksome factor, the greater the satisfaction. This is where we also learn about our capacity for compassion.
Time to look at your task lists with a view to a Divisions Spring Clean.