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Metawork, nobody is capable but all participate grudgingly

This article is a translation/paraphrase of Professor Gunter Dueck's original post titled DD265: Metawork – keiner kann’s, aber alle machen ärgerlich mit (Mai 2016). Professor Dueck's philosophy resonates with me, so I'd like to make his thoughts available to a wider audience. Bear with my Gerlish. Remarks in brackets aren't part of the original text and are either my comment, extension or explanation. Here we go:

Metawork is your own effort to organize work (your's and other's), not performing the actual effort. It is about coordinating your contributions, more often than not, across multiple projects. This includes managing decisions (through eMail) and the communicate with all stakeholders. E.g. you can use efficient (Dueck used the word "fertile", but I'm not sure if that has the same resonance in English) meetings to establish the approach how to structure and execute working together. Over time a corporate culture emerges where a common good metawork forms the enabler for efficient execution of the core work (we'll learn another term for this just below).

In reality, however, there are quarrels in meetings, about who does what. Conflicts surface, everyone speaks their minds unfiltered, meetings drag on and on. People get a grudge and are annoyed and are left with the feeling to have wasted valuable time, they won't get back. Dueck checked the web, what it has to say about metawork. His favorite place is the the Urban Dictionary  where ordinary people contribute to difficult definitions and provide lots of suggestions. The best of them are the odd ones.

You rant online to be overburdened with unproductive responsibilities, unable to get anything done. People share that in a development project staffed with eight people only two of them code. The rest warms seats in the meeting room and is first in line for promotion if the project is successful. What a mess!

Hmmm. So your own work is productive, anything else a distraction. Not thinking about what your project members see as their "productive work". An example: If the developers miss a deadline, it generates a lot of distraction for the rest of the team. "Everything would be perfect if the coders would work properly! We have to integrate into SAP, everybody is waiting. What a cluster f**k (that's the closest cultural equivalent to "Supergau" I could think of)" - The two developers retort: "You could have contributed code, instead of babbling in all that meeting, we would be done by now"

This a clear indicator, Dueck sees in all corporations, that the different project members have no understanding of the tasks of their fellow members. If they do know them, they doubt the importance or usefulness. One's own work is important, anything else is a distraction. Others only interrupt. Then they quarrel in in meetings

  Why oh why? All are well trained for their own tasks and complete them quite well. However roughly none have been educated on metawork: how to get organized and collaborate. They do some of it every day, limping along without having or wanting to learn about it. It never had been a topic. They bitch the whole day about the drag of metawork without being able to fully grasp it, lacking a word for it, not aware of the term metawork. Managers and project leaders follow the prevalent methodologies and press forward. More often than not, they aren't aware of metawork. The manage or lead as "their own work", but hardly spend a thought on the work as a whole

Even when managers would know how to coordinate well and fuse the parts to a whole, how to deal with unknowns and avoid conflict - it falls short when their reports have no clue what is metawork?

When team members only spend half of their time with "their own work (e.g. programming)" and  are irate about the "stolen" time spend in meetings otherwise, they haven't understood the very nature of work - or metawork is done mind-boggling bad.

Metawork is about the principles and foundation of performing work. Those who haven't given it a thought, bungle in each project, wondering how it could work. Every conflict is new, different and unique. Each project has its own singular surprises. What a madhouse! Lots of literature reenforces that point of view.
However that's because one only focuses on their own tasks at hand, and never learn to pay respect of the significant other contributions.

Dueck suggested in his book „Verständigung im Turm zu Babel“ (Communicate in the tower of Babel) and his blog to contrast meta communication and mesa communication. „Mesa“ is greek meaning „inside“, „meta“ is like „and beyond“. In the context of work „mesawork“ would be the individual task at hand and „metawork“ anything beyond that. Dueck sees it over and over again: Nobody is really good at meta communication, anybody communicates off their chests. Similarly we are good at mesawork but bemoan the complexity of the world, since we can't relate to metawork.

Shall we leave it that way? Half of our time being experts, half of it clueless N00bs? Isn't the balance tipping towards cluelessness, since the need for metawork is raising in a increasingly complex world? How about you? Happy to continue only fretting?


Gravatar Image1 - I've seen Supergau translated as meltdown, but that doesn't work as well in this context.


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