I’ve worked as a business manager for most of my professional life.
And I’ve learnt to follow these two principles about productivity and performance:
- Measuring performance by activity leads to overwork at the same time as your most important work remains undone.
- Any available time that doesn’t get re-allocated will fall back into the black hole.
Organisations don’t follow the laws of physics, but if they did, these two rules would make the cut.
Because ignoring these principles is the same as expecting to fill a bathtub without plugging the drain first.
But all waste happens for a reason.
Only 15% of employees know their companies most important goals. And even fewer are clear on how to reach them.
This was one of the insights that led to the 4 Disciplines of Execution.
I’ve seen senior leaders get confounded when they experience it in their organisations.
Usually, it elicits cries of frustration and defeat: “How can people not know that?!” or “Have I failed at making it clear?!”
But there’s a simple reason behind it called: Busyness as a proxy for productivity.
Cal Newport explains, “In the absence of clear indicators to what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of things in a visible manner.”
You’re as guilty of it as I am.
What hardworking and self-respecting person doesn’t want to be a valuable member of their team?
But when you don’t know which activities are valuable, you end up doing everything.
What causes success, and how do you know you’re winning?
Behind every successful company, there are ambitious people. And the same is true of a company that’s struggling.
The difference is in what you decide to focus your energy on.
Because how you decide to spend your time says more about your ambitions than all your strategy decks put together.
I believe that a business can’t grow in value unless its people are growing in skill.
And battling overwork with a simultaneous loss of productivity is a one-way ticket to the bottom.
The good news: you can change your course right now.
Behind every successful company, there are people who decide to do things differently.
The first step is to identify your most valuable work by questioning your value to your clients.
Why does your business make money?
And when was the last time someone asked you that question?
Compared to the times you’ve wondered how your business makes money or how your competitors make money, I mean.
By asking ‘how’, you’re only evaluating the tools and processes that help you do your job.
But by asking ‘why’, you’re questioning your value and your reason to exist.
And that can be a powerful exercise for a manager.
Try it yourself:
Ask yourself this question and write down 3 to 5 reasons that you come up with.
Now ask the same question from your boss and colleagues.
Different people will give you different answers, but you should be able to identify 2 – 3 things common in all the answers you get.
I would be concerned if you don’t manage to find a common thread.
How many people are directly engaged in these activities?
The next step is to check how many people (in your team or across your company) are directly involved in these activities.
They must do it as their primary job, and that’s how their performance is measured.
Avoid generalising or finding anecdotal links.
Doing this exercise will tell you:
- which activities and behaviours make you more valuable to your clients,
- how many people are intentionally involved in those activities, and
- where and what types of gaps you need to fill.
Without answers to these questions, you didn’t have much chance to get out of the downward spiral of loss of productivity and overwork.
At this point, things get much more straightforward.
The next step is to take resources away from low-value work and shift it to more high-value work.
Remember the second rule: all freed up productivity will get sucked in by the black hole unless you reinvest it into another activity.
Now you know what your most important or valuable work looks like.
Help people optimise or automate repetitive or other low-value work and invest that productivity into more high-value work. In my opinion, training people or upskilling them also falls in the high-value work category.
Pay extra attention to describing the new task, set clear lead measures, and set a deadline for completing it.