The dreaded question “Do you have five minutes?” seems to be relatively harmless on the surface. I mean, who doesn’t have five minutes to spare? Then you stop and say “Sure” to not be rude or seem dismissive of the question. Then the questioner quickly blurts out the thing that they have been thinking about for a while and they need your quick input. Then you struggle to catch up with their context and there is the inevitable knowledge transfer to catch you up to where they are in the thought process. Even better, when the person asking the question has an answer in mind and they ask leading questions or state leading biased facts to guide you to the outcome that they thought you would say.
Now it has been 20 minutes and you have deposited your answer in their mind and they leave content with the outcome. Now you are back at your computer to pick up where you left off… “where was I again?”
As you try to replay the last things you remember doing, the 5 minute question conversation seems to creep back in. You decide you should have worded something a bit different or realize there was a detail that you felt is now strangely “missing“. You just gave an answer to something and that is likely going to be socialized with your name attached to it to add some sort of validity to the decision or statement made…
You try to shake it off and get back to the original business at hand… “where was I again?”
It has taken you 15 minutes to get back into your original thought and resume what you were working on. The cost of the 5 minute question is now up to roughly 35 minutes. This is why I will often shuffle quickly through the office with my eyes lowered to avoid “quick” questions. Eventually, I make a mistake and there is eye contact… “Hey, you got five minutes?” and I am sure the look on my face tells the full story of how uncomfortable I am with what is about to happen. Don’t get me wrong… the question is fine and helping people out is great but the context switch is terrible. It takes everyone a different amount of time to get back into context… for me, it takes a long time because I keep going back to the conversation that I just had. My brain can be very LIFO (Last In First Out) at times and that can be bad for productivity if I am being measured on the oldest thing in the to do list.
We have to set aside time to have informal conversations with no real agenda other than identified problems… that is very healthy for problem solving as a group. That way there is enough time to capture context and stay in it as a group while a discussion is had on the subject. We have to find a place to capture those items we are working on and a place for people to capture the questions that they have for you to be addressed at an appropriate time. Also, I like to schedule meeting times and collaboration times back to back on the same day. That way I can stay in the mindset that my context will change rapidly and having conversations together, you can pull different facts in and cut down on “knowledge transfer” time if others have the same schedule for meeting.
If you see me in the office and I am moving quickly past you… keep the cost of a context switch in mind, because I will rarely not stop because we all want to feel important, needed and helpful. Find a time to set aside for groups of people to collaborate and rapidly switch context. Then, find a place to keep track of tasks and visualize your work to make it easier to get back into context if you are interrupted.