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Communication, Culture, On the job Skills

Real Productivity Gains Come from the Top

This post has been sitting on the sidelines for awhile, waiting for the right moment to complete and share it. Today was the day, for in my travels I came across three blog posts with tips and tricks on how to be more productive. I will choose not to link to them because I don’t want to anchor this post in criticism of others. In fact, they do have many valid points although I’m finding they are all starting to repeat themselves. Prioritize…shut down your email…schedule time for mental breaks…minimize distractions. I think I’m spending too much time on the internet.

I want to pull back a giant step and look at productivity from the perspective of an organization at large. I want to bite off a bigger chunk on this topic by considering productivity with a more open view rather than just pointing to you, the isolated employee, and how you can fine tune your day. My passion is making a whole company lean, agile and productive. And, as I point out in this article on org culture, a productive enterprise creates more time for its employees to work on meaningful things; and this leads to a more satisfied and inspired worker base.

Fixing one employee at a time is kind of like curing prejudice; it’s a valid approach but will take generations to get to the destination. I just don’t have that kinda time…or patience. To achieve a level of productivity that is substantial – as in, creates competitive advantages and/or changes your business trajectory – you absolutely must start at the top. The CEO and company execs have the tools at their disposal to take wholesale initiatives to the team for impact that is much more immediate than the groundswell of new thinking we tend to try to incubate at the lower levels.productivity2

If your scope of interest is simply your own productivity, then yes, you are best to google one of those articles with daily tips. If your scope of influence is a department or an entire company then I recommend you hold yourself even more accountable than you do each person on your team. For game-changing productivity comes from big things, the most meaningful of which are these:

Culture.

My way to language the culture change is to create a new respect for people’s time. After all, if you really tried you could come up with more financial resources to generate results; it’s much more difficult to generate another hour in a day. Time is the most precious of our org resources, so we need to first and foremost change our mindset to strive for max return on time investment even moreso than what we return on the dollar.

A recent article that I read championed the common leadership strategy of focusing the organization on a single, important goal. And then we convince ourselves that if we’re all marching toward the same goal, we’ll be productive and drive results. We give each other a high five and go back to our offices. Great. Now, what happens if I’m made to sit in a 3 hour meeting to listen to a download on someone’s big project? I see no direct impact on the big objective (and especially my objectives), so what are my options? Can I opt out of the meeting because I don’t see the relevance?  Can I suggest a more time sensitive way to accomplish the objectives of this 3 hour meeting?  Probably not. We live in an org conundrum of being told to march to the goal but to be a (low maintenance) team player by donating our time to causes for which we see little value. This is where the ‘focus on the goal’ mantra breaks down.

My dream company would be one where max value for our time is honored and healthy challenges to each other for this cause are openly encouraged. You can’t create a combative and oppositional culture, but rather one that challenges all to deliver value.

Empowerment.

…and if you haven’t picked this up from the previous section, an empowered company is a productive one. Let me share an example from B-school. I remember doing an operations case where German factory line workers had to perform under two different scenarios but were in both required to hit an output quota. In the first scenario, the line ran in at a defined rate to equal the quota. In the second scenario the line workers could determine how fast the line ran at any given time. They ran it more quickly in the morning, slowly for the hour after lunch and in the last half hour of the work day. The output when under their own control was significantly over quota.

The point is, give your teams objectives along with support, and watch them produce. The more you try to control the process to achieving the result, the less initiative you’ll encourage, and the more your team will rely on your direction and pacing.

Infrastructure.

Perhaps the most inefficient activity in a company is information management. How I cannot wait until the IT/data nerds rise to power in organizations to not only make them leaner but also powerful. After all, data is power, in many ways.

I have in the past bemoaned the fact that personally our lives have evolved in how we communicate and manage information. As a simple example, say you’re at home and want to know what’s going on in the world – what do you do?  You google it or scan your Twitter feed. OK, now you’re at work and want to find the answer to something – what do you do? Hmmm, well, any number of things: pore through emails and shared drives, extract data from legacy systems and format into Excel, email finance and wait for an answer….

You get it.

Point is, if you can’t ‘google’ and answer at work, your infrastructure has failed you. Yet another sign that our workplace is not evolving quickly enough.

To compound the problem, managers and execs have insatiable curiosity. They love to make decisions (that’s good!) and to do so they crave information and decision support. As a result, in all departments, we spend an inordinate – OK, alarming – amount of time just compiling information that may or may never be used.  In the last company I worked for I was in an exec meeting about how to cut costs in the coming year and create headcount efficiencies. I asked the head of finance how much time in his 12-person department was spent compiling information and how much was spent analyzing and generating action because of it. He bluntly but unaffectedly answered about 95% of time at a minimum was spent on compiling information.

::::::cut to me staring at him in silence, hoping he’d anticipate my next question::::::

No dice.

Me: “How much would it cost to create software to completely flip the ratio?”

What followed was a rant about why systems never do what you want them to do. I left it alone. I couldn’t think of a diplomatic way to remind him that computers are not (yet) smarter than we are; they do what we tell them to do…

This kind of thinking is not uncommon. We routinely default to inefficiently throwing people resources at things systems should be doing…such as answering fact-based questions. Sadly, this problem is not likely to be addressed until a new competency arises in business that currently doesn’t widely exist among our functional heads in marketing, finance, IT, HR and operations. In the future, we will have tech heads who have leadership skills and a strong knowledge of business information architecture to be able to produce the right reports and dashboards. If I did it all again that would probably be my kinda thing. That leadership profile will be coming soon though; necessity and opportunity breed invention.

Infrastructure also points to org structure. The bigger the company, the tendency to matrix the design with product experts on one axis and functional experts (retail, CRM, etc) along another. What ends up happening is big meetings, lots of involvement and lengthy decision-making timeframes.

The solution to this is to avoid the inclination to promote consensus decision-making. Sure it sounds fair and gives us the warm fuzzies but it’s a sure fire way to bog down an organization. Always promote input from the entire team, but leave the final decisions to no more than 2-3 people.

Process.

I’m saving this one for last because I may turn you off with my radical ways! But you’ll find that the recurring theme about information is that it must be easily accessed, not force fed.

I mentioned in the last section how our methods of information management have so much room for upside. Well here’s another tentacle of that problem – the way we share and archive information.

  1. Information Transfer

We seem to have two methods: emails and big sweaty meetings with Powerpoint. You can probably guess what I have to say about emails so let’s bypass that for a second and talk about meetings.

I don’t have a problem with meetings per se. The issue I have is how we use the time. I passionately believe that meetings should RARELY be used to SHARE information. Yes, you heard me right. It’s a colossal waste of time, particularly if the whole point of the meeting is just to download information. Why? Because we no longer learn/retain that way. Society now is of a thin-client architecture, where just like systems, data is stored more in clouds and less in hard drives. We don’t strive to pack our heads with information to remember and instead keep technology at the ready to access what we need. It’s how we roll now, so we absolutely must adapt to how humans are evolving.

An exception I feel would be an exec-led, all-company update on strategy and results. Those are worthwhile and best to be kept under 20 mins. The deeper you get into the details the more you lose people, who en masse just want to know:

  • Are we doing well or not? Give me 1-2 reasons why
  • Will I have still have a job for the foreseeable future?
  • What 1-2 things are coming up I should be aware of?

And boom, that’s it. You’re done. Archive all the details and send a link out as a follow up. We try so hard to get even our lowest level employees to think like CEOs and our solution to that is to share immense amounts of detail, management-style. Not everyone wants or needs that. The average Joe will retain 2-3 sound bytes so be guided accordingly. Simplify. Make the boring details available for those who care and just bring compelling highlights to the masses.

So in my company, I would actually ban presenting. Yup, I would. Information downloads would happen electronically or summarized in all-company meetings. I’d empower and hold people accountable to review it and internalize it at a time that works best for them. For meetings where a decision is to be made, I would use the model that LinkedIn execs use. All background information required to make a decision is summarized in a Word-like document with perhaps Excel as a backup and shared a day in advance. All are required to review and internalize it prior to the meeting; it’s silly (and slow) to have one person standing at the front of the room for 2 hours reading it to everyone. I mean, come on. At LinkedIn, meetings are therefore no longer than about 15 minutes and begin with clarifying questions and then move quickly to decisions. Speedy. Efficient. Productive. Inspiring!

2. Information archiving

Right now we archive files in shared drives or embed them in emails. Each of us is left to create our own filing system to codify and recover information when we need it. Inefficient and unreliable.

I’d highly recommend a platform such as Slack, which turns emails into discussion threads with defined groups who can post and share information in a more condensed format than emails. Something like a Twitter feed per topic. Slack has an awesome system to archive and codify data files to make info retrieval quite easy, with searchable terms and tags – all accessible from any form of technology. Todoist is another great choice. It’s the way of the future, my friends. Get with it.

____________________

I don’t want to discourage any of you from taking your own initiative to be productive, but let me put it all into better context. Think about your work day…or week.  Think critically about every thing you do, from preparing reports and Powerpoints to answering emails to attending meetings, to even just thinking or dreaming about your business. Classify each task – no matter how small – into something that contributes directly to your objectives…or not. Items that are not are things that matter to others that you are likely made to do. Also, and more importantly, create a ratio of time spent under your own direction or control versus time spent attending to the needs or direction of someone else.

Those ratios are telling, and are likely to reveal how little focus and control you are able to have because of the vectors working somewhat against you.  To improve your own productivity, you can only re-engineer the time and tasks that are yours to control.  So my question becomes, what kind of impact on productivity can you truly make if you’re fixing tiny parts of your work day?

That’s why we need these bigger things. The real drivers of productivity come from tools, culture and structure and less from the inspiration of leadership. Without the right concrete organizational support, we can only become marginally more productive. Real change and improvement starts with a different mindset and executive accountability; with that approach, we’ll find ourselves focusing more on driving results…and just plain accomplishing more in general.

ADDITIONAL READING

  1. Why Powerpoint Presentations Aren’t Allowed at Amazon (love this!)

http://www.businessinsider.com/jeff-bezos-email-against-powerpoint-presentations-2015-7

2. Here is an article from Business Insider aimed at owners of small businesses.  The purpose of the article is to teach owners how to be more productive. While I feel many ideas are useful, I find the article to still be a bit primitive or at least narrow in its thinking. While at the opening there is a faint headnod toward the impact on the company, the author could have run with the concept along the lines of what I’m saying here. I would go as far as to say the owner should install a company wide mindset of productivity. Strive for efficiency everywhere and expect all to follow the same protocols regardless of level.

The author of this article preaches delegation, ignoring emails and being almost inaccessible one day a week. If this is taken too seriously or incorporated without good judgment, there could be an unproductive ripple effect within the company. Best to strive for efficiency everywhere. If you do then you will every day be able to free up time to think, focus on priorities and even take mental breaks.

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