The difference between interruption and interference?

When I was young, my family sometimes had more than one dogs in the house. I would always be fascinated by the behaviour of our dogs during feeding time. I learned animal behaviour & instinct at first hand: when it comes to food, dogs do not take kindly to interference from any party, me, the young master, was of no exception. I tried experimenting on our dogs feeding sessions by either taking a portion of the food from the feeding bowl of one dog and putting it to that of another dog’s or taking the bowl of one dog away and adding more food. In either cases, the interruption in their feeding frenzy or the interference by redistribution of food portion were rewarded by growling of the affected dogs! I learned the basics of dog’s feeding behaviour: neither interruption or interference were tolerated!

How do human handle interruption and interference in learning?

Personally, especially during the time I was teaching college students, I welcomed interruptions from my students during lectures and especially during laboratory classes. When I was a university student, I would like my doubts on a topic being taught by my lecturer cleared up as soon as possible (preferably during the class but in most cases I had to “ambush” my lecturer after the session had ended). Often the abstract concepts being taught would require a grasp of the key facts before one would be in the position of understanding the entire topic. Thus as a lecturer, later in life, I really did not mind being interrupted during class, especially if the interrupter had questions / doubts related to the subject matter. However, I would not take it too kindly if someone interfered with my teaching such as talking loudly in “competition” with my attempt to have the class’s attention or similar noise pollution from the next door classroom.

Interruption is good, interference is a devil!

When I worked as the assistant to a tycoon, I often received a 3-lines memo from him to put together a business proposal. The deadline usually was two weeks. It would take me a few days of desk research to gather the required information to commence work. I would not write a single word until I had constructed a concept map of the business proposal and find ways to interrupt my boss’s schedule (by stealing a couple of minutes in between his appointments) to get a confirmation on the outline and key expectations of my boss. Next, I would commence working on the financial projections of the proposal and would, if anomaly was found, seek further guidance from my boss. Although I was given two weeks to complete the business proposal, I normally would have on hand up to half a dozen more “cases”. It would be my boss’s habit to check on progress regulary. Usually three to four days after the confirmation of the concept. Again, I welcome the interruption as it gave me a chance to reconfirm the direction of my work and to allow me to suggest modifications / additions if appropriate and most of all to seek help if I could not find sufficient information. Because of this “structured” way that I worked with my boss, who often would tell me that I had not two weeks, but seven days to get the job done (due to external factors), I rarely had to work too late to complete my work and often did so ahead of time.

My boss, being a good manager, had never once in the nine years that I was with him, interfered in my work such as telling me how I should commence my work, how I should write, etc.. Instead, he was only interested in the end result, that is a good business proposal, the “path” that I took to get this done was immaterial to him so long as I produced the “goods” in good time and in the expected quality.

When I became the leader of a university college a few months after my stint with this tycoon, I adopted the same strategy. I would assign projects and tasks to my team but would not interfere in the course of their work. I made good use of my personal assistant to interrupt and check on progress for me. I would roll up my sleeves to help if anyone was stucked. My team soon learned to adapt to my working style and most would volunteer to update me on progress or to seek my guidance if they faced obstacles in their work. What I could not tolerate was someone sitting on an assigned task, making excuses for their incompetence, sheer laziness or their lack of a sense of responsibility. I am glad to recall that, for my two-years stint, I had only really given two individuals a good dressing down on their lack of professionalism.

Black cat or white cat, it makes no difference!

I think all managers should learn to appreciate these wise words of the great Chinese stateman, Deng Xiaoping, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.”

As managers, we should worry more on the outcomes or outputs of a project or a task. We should leave it to the wisdom of our team members to figure out how to accomplish that. We could interrupt to check on progress, to offer guidance or just a give a word of encouragement. We should never interfere in how our team members get the job done or if they are doing it “in our way”. We must always remember that there are more than one ways to skin a cat. We should  never “sweat on the small stuff” but always have the big picture, i.e our goal, in mind!

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