what_doingIt started in the late 80s, when pagers became cheap enough that every street-wise teenager got one as a way of bypassing the dreaded home phone that our parents might answer. Overnight, the process of making plans with our friends turned into the infuriating non-committal refrain of, “just page me” as we took advantage of our new mobile connectedness. Never mind that this was before the age of affordable cell phones so the process of paging someone usually meant loitering around a public pay phone like a crack addict trying to score. The beeper allowed us to roll on the fly, and the concept of committing to plans went out the window.

When cell phone rates came down a few years later, connecting to anyone on the go became a reality and in the process rendered any attempts to plan obsolete. Instead, we just called or texted, “Where you at?” and figured it out from there. Finally, with the arrival of the smartphone, we didn’t just have access to our friends but found ourselves constantly connected to the entire online world.

While the ability to contact anyone at any time and mobile access to the internet have certainly made us more productive, these tools have also made us non-committal and “organizationally lazy.” Being always connected provides us with an endless supply of options and immediate opportunities for impromptu changes and distractions. Since people are no longer required to organize, plan, or commit to anything in advance, many of us have lost the ability to do so in an effective manner. Instead, we’ve become reliant on planning on the fly, which isn’t really planning at all.

For an example of how immediate communication and mobile Web access have informalized scheduling, consider how the process of dating has changed. Arranging a date used to require planning an activity several days in advance and showing up on time. If you couldn’t make it, you had to make an apologetic and rather embarrassing phone call for canceling. Now you can flick through online photos and ping someone to hook up with on the fly. No planning or commitment required.

Constant access might sound like a great development for easy dating, but apply these traits to the working world, and you start to see how we’re developing unproductive habits. Future generations will grow up without being required to learn organizational skills having replaced them with on the go contact. But no amount of connectedness can replace the importance of being able to plan and execute. The ability to organize, commit, and focus on the tasks at hand are an absolute necessity for building a business and managing people. It would not be unreasonable to collectively call these skills “leadership” and yet our modern communication tools, primarily the smartphone, have inadvertently relieved us of the immediate need to develop these skills.

The creators of these tools point to their utility, but allowing people to offload, or think they’ve offloaded, the need to actually practice organization only exacerbates the problem. I have many friends who use all the latest scheduling apps but still can’t organize their way out of a paper bag. What good are these tools if the people using them can’t follow through on their plans? It’s not the fault of the apps of course, but they do end up being just another distraction that allows users to fool themselves into thinking they’re organized and productive instead of developing actual organizational skills.

This is not a luddite rant to throw our smartphones in a well. I love my phone, and I have no intention of giving it up. But that doesn’t change the fact that always on connectedness has largely removed the requirement for people to learn organizational, and to some degree interpersonal, skills as part of our development.

We’ve become so accustomed to accessing anyone, anytime, and being able to tweak any situation with a mobile text or email that we’re losing the ability to coordinate and commit. I believe this is an unhealthy development, especially for would be entrepreneurs and future leaders. Because if you want to lead a company, you better be able to make a plan, organize your people, and commit to following through. And that’s not something you can do on the fly.

[Image Credit: Ape Lad on Flickr]