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Deep “Managerial” Work: The What, Why and How

March 1, 2021

By: Karim El-Mehairy

10 min read

Have you found yourself struggling with constant interruptions throughout the working day? Do you often feel like you are unable to make time for and give undivided attention to key components of your work?

In our tech and app-driven age, we are all subject to distractions a dozen times a minute. Notifications, small talk in the office, “reply all” emails, inboxes overflowing. You are not alone in your lack of ability to delve deeply into your work in a distraction-free concentration. However, we want to address a specific group of people, who by the very nature of their role and active force in decision-making, face an unusually high amount of interruptions.

Managers. It’s part of the job, and we know it. But the seemingly never ending diversions, queries, negotiations and emails make it difficult to focus deeply on important aspects of the work, and this makes the concept of ‘deep work’ an unattainable fantasy. 

What is interesting to examine is how exactly ‘deep work’ can benefit managers in both the short term and long term. For the purposes of example and illustration of points, I will sometimes refer to answers and data from a group of 24 people I hosted in a webinar discussing ‘Deep’ Managerial Work.

The Meaning of ‘Deep Work’

Cal Newport defines the process as professional activities we carry out in a state of distraction-free concentration which push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts usually create new value, improve your skills and are difficult to replicate. Subsequently, shallow work usually presents itself as non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks which can often be performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value and are easy to replicate.

Sounds good, but what should we do with this definition? Newport is just describing a state of mind while doing the work. So, does any work carried out with the same state of mind be considered deep work? No, the work should create new value and push the limits of cognitive capacity. Since I’m actually exerting so much effort, I’m not copying anybody and I’m putting in genuine, creative intellectual effort while working on something new. This usually makes it hard to replicate. Therefore, the more I push my deep work cognitive capabilities to the limit, the more the replicability of the work becomes harder.

Why & How Managers Should Use It

In our modern world, distraction permeates several facets of our lives and it is becoming increasingly difficult to carry out distraction-free work, leaving those who manage to achieve ‘deep work’ and create value with a competitive edge.

On the managerial level, when you produce work that is difficult to imitate, you are making yourself valuable and indispensable. When you become indispensable, you position yourself to have job security, more prospects within the company and more leverage to negotiate better compensation, benefits and package.

According to Mintzberg’s Management Model, the manager operates on three planes in two perspectives – internal and external. The internal perspective is within his unit with his team and reportees, while the external perspective can include interfacing with other organizations and within his own organization between departments.

We won’t delve too deeply into Mintzberg’s model, but suffice to say that many of the activities he outlines on the three planes of management require deep work and it echoes my argument that managers should be doing some deep activities. This point is intuitively reflected in the responses from the 24 individuals in the deep managerial work webinar.

Strategizing and creating/designing systems from scratch, and reviewing the system after a period of time being used, is a deep work activity. Deeming is another very deep activity, as it requires a decent amount of prioritizing and affects the whole team very directionally. 

When it comes to developing individuals on the team, a manager needs to carefully study the individual before sitting with them and giving them undivided attention. Proper coaching is a very deep activity which needs a high level of honing skills and development. Building a team also entails the careful study of each individual member, assessing the chemistry between them and it isn’t a managerial activity that can be done on the go. 

Analyzing and problem solving are very deep managerial work activities, and lead me to my next illustrative point. I once attended a session called Quantified Self in London and was introduced to this man who was obsessed with tracking any and all activities he did. If he found that he was repeating any activity more than three times, he would stop and carry out a root cause analysis to get to the bottom of what was causing him to repeat the activity more than three times.

This is a useful deep work activity I applied in my own work, managing a micro school. To overcome the problem of new parents asking lots of questions each year, I decided to develop some videos explaining everything they need to understand about how the school works. I understood this is a problem we will face again and again, so I can hire someone, create a system/process, automate the process or outsource it. In this case, I outsourced the process to existing parents and quelled the repetitive annual activity.

Daniel Priestley expands upon this point in his book 24 Assets by arguing that a very good metric companies should be maximizing is revenue by employee and how to improve it, which usually happens through automating any task that happens more than three times. This frees the employee up to do more things. In other words, as managers, we can improve the revenue per employee by creating digital assets. These can be brand philosophy documents, creating better systems, even excel sheets to collect and communicate information.

Personally, I believe managers should be always thinking about creating more effective digital assets and my time at PepsiCo illustrates the beauty of digital assets perfectly. During my time there, I was working on a model to estimate how much glass we needed to purchase for the bottles from three different glass companies. It was a great model and before building it, the process was taking an enormous amount of negotiating time between different parties and top management. Once the model was built, the whole process became way easier. I believe creating a digital asset is one of the most important functions a manager should thrive to do

This doesn’t mean managers have to make the digital assets themselves. The work can be delegated and carried out by other people, but after completion the manager will have to employ ‘deep’ work time to analyze the model critically and give it uninterrupted attention, putting their cognitive abilities to the limits so they can evaluate the systems and assets which will be used in the future.

12 Pathways to Make ‘Deep’ Work Happen

We have argued for the importance of ‘deep’ managerial work, and why more managers should be utilizing it to gain a competitive edge and further their impact as effective team leaders. Now we will discuss some of the ways ‘deep’ work can happen.

  1. Create a ‘Next Action List’ vs.Timeboxing vs. Fine Scheduling. By creating a next action list, you’re putting a deadline on deep work and creating a sense of urgency. By ‘timeboxing’, you are boxing off time in your schedule for ‘deep work’, and lastly many CEOs and entrepreneurs use fine scheduling by scheduling every single minute of their time – a favourite of Bill Gates.
  2. Don’t fight the trigger! Acknowledge it. Distractions come in many forms and can eat away at your attention. It’s useful to note the trigger and the emotion preceding it, and explore the emotion with curiosity for a few minutes then proceed with the work at hand.
  3. Explore your competency level to ensure you’re capable of doing this task, perhaps you don’t have the right skill set or knowledge yet.
  4. ‘Direct the rider’ by scripting out your critical moves and next actions, defining it alone will help in outlining the thought process.
  5. ‘Motivate the elephant’ by shrinking the task using a 5-minute rule. Work for 5 minutes per day and eventually the task will get done.
  6. Set expectations by sharing your schedule, communicate your needs with those around you so there are no interruptions, and commit to giving them quality time at another date. This creates a respect for your time.
  7. Time box checking email, Slack, What’s App. Create slots for checking your communications and stick to them.
  8. Control your devices by using the do not disturb function and managing your notifications.
  9. Manage your smartphone by removing apps you don’t need, migrating the usage of some apps from your phone to “harder to use” devices like tablet/computer, and rearrange icons off the home screens.
  10. Reconsider which meetings you need to attend and how long they are, and negotiate which meetings you are asked to attend.
  11. Meditate productively. Some of the best problem solving happens while walking, driving, showering etc.
  12. Embrace boredom and rethink entertainment. Spend time with family, chatting and listening to stories. Watch something with your friends and enjoy company. Don’t mistake scrolling through Facebook for entertainment, it’s designed to keep your attention on it for eternity.

Lastly, we asked our webinar group for a ranking on what they believed were the best strategies for accomplishing ‘deep’ work.

Would you agree?

Interestingly enough, the top ranked method of paving way to ‘deep’ work, Next Action List vs. Timeboxing vs. Fine Scheduling, will be the subject of my next article. Stay tuned.


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