There is tension at work between “This needs to get done,” and “Follow the procedure,” on the one hand, and “Find innovative solutions,” “Be creative and think” on the other hand. If work were all one way or the other it would be easy but this dichotomy between thinking and doing leads to calamitous consequences when out of balance. We label the doing work redwork, and the thinking work bluework. The reason we need to understand which type of work we are in is that doing and thinking, redwork and bluework, involve two distinct mental processes, ways of interacting, and languages.
Redwork consists of focused, performing, and doing part of work. Redwork is typically production, physical , and routine work. A factory worker on an assembly line is engaging in redwork. The key is that variability is an enemy to redwork. Redwork benefits from reducing variability and having predictability and control-ability.
Bluework consists of the creative, collaborative, and thinking part of work. Brainstorming, problem solving, and designing are all bluework. Designing the process that the factory worker on an assembly line will use, the product they will make, and how that product will be updated is bluework. Variability is an ally to bluework. Bluework benefits from embracing variability, independent thinking and alternate perspectives.
Because variability affects redwork and bluework differently, how we manage them is different. Throughout our day, the week, the year, and even our lives, we flip between redwork and bluework. If we have the same management approach all week long then that approach is not going to fit at least half the time.
For example, a meeting where we are looking to make a decision (a bluework meeting) should be run in a way to maximize variability of inputs and perspectives. But too often these meetings are run in ways that make it hard to dissent or disagree with the group. As the discussion goes on, it gets harder and harder for those valuable views to see the light of day. Later, leaders will complain “But I wasn’t told.” The problem was bringing a reduce variability (redwork) playbook to an embrace variability (bluework) game. In these cases voting first, before discussion, enhances variability and allows the outliers to identify themselves.
As leaders we need to ask ourselves: have we appropriately matched our language to our work.
This is what it looks like at work: Assume we are in the midst of production work. We’re coding, we’re talking to clients, we’re running the servers, and we’re rolling out the next update. It feels like “We need to get this done on time. We just gotta push through. We can’t be late.” This is production redwork mode. But we need a mechanism to flip us out of production, out of the redwork, out of the “do the work right” into the bluework and ask ourselves “Are we doing the right work?” This will take us from “how do we get the software release out on time” to “Should we get the software release out on time.”
How much red or blue work is needed for each job task is different. In general there is more bluework toward the beginning of the project when we want to bias toward learning and more redwork toward the end — when we want to bias toward production.
Questions to ask yourself:
Am I in redwork or bluework, or, is variability an ally or enemy to this work?
Am I matching our processes and language to the type of work?
When will it be time to end this phase and flip to the other (out of redwork to bluework, or out of bluework to redwork.)
Learn more about how you can harness the power of red-blue thinking our new book Leadership Is Language https://intentbasedleadership.com/leadership-is-language-book/
Watch this nudge to hear more about redwork and bluework. Leadership Nudge® 276 – Red Work and Blue Work
You can also watch this Nudge to learn more – Leadership Nudge® 290 – Redwork, Bluework