How to Put a Stop to Random Acts of Senseless Productivity
I arrived early to lead a negotiation workshop for a young tech company. The presenting challenge was to help managers improve communication and project work among different teams with the goal of increasing productivity.
The company had an open floor plan and from within the glass walls of the meeting room I watched people scramble to finish up their morning emails and calls. They stopped each other to grab a few words and move on to the next task, often backtracking to grab something—a laptop, a coffee cup, a cell phone.
Sally, a senior graphic designer, stepped into the room a few minutes early. We shook hands, learned a few things about each other and then she sat down, turned off her smart phone and asked if she could help finish setting up the room.
At 10 minutes past our scheduled start time, we had five butts-in-chairs out of 16. The workshop coordinator apologized and spent the next several minutes wrangling people into the room while the rest of us got started. At about 25 after the hour, everyone was settled and we paused to take a look at what just happened.
The on-timers were mildly annoyed-to-pissy and pointing fingers at work-as-usual. The late-comers were apologetic and pointing fingers at circumstances beyond their control. We were precisely where we needed to be—in the middle of a productivity drama. It was The Workplace Tempest and the actors had their lines down cold.
At the end of the day, the team of 16 practiced the fundamentals of negotiation: how to identify the opportunity/challenge/issue; how to ask diagnostic questions; how to anchor and frame; and how to move past impasse with brainstorming, and how to make concessions and ask for reciprocity.
But something happened in the middle of the day that turned our focus inside out.
...In a good way. I noticed that Sally had been taking copious notes. I asked her how things were going and if things were progressing as she expected. She said, “I want to negotiate with this team of 16. I have a workability proposal I want to present and I wonder if we could use it as the basis for our practice scenarios in the afternoon.”
“Good on you for noticing an opportunity and asking,” I said, and she pointed to the quote I’d written on the whiteboard before the day began:
Less is more. And the only time that more is more is when it’s more of less.
Sally said, “I’d like to use that quote as a basis for coming up with some productivity practices…agreements we practice implementing when we’re done with the training.”
Throughout lunch she lamented about the company’s all-out focus on productivity, and her wish that doing an honest amount of great work as opposed to mind-numbing amounts of mediocre work would turn things from blame to engagement and do more for the bottom line. Like many recession-addled companies, they were charged with doing more with less and they felt the workshop was punishment for bad behavior. Ouch.
She worried about sustainability, as writer Tim Jackson does in his recent opinion piece on productivity in the New York Times:
But there’s another strategy for keeping people in work when demand stagnates. Perhaps in the long run it’s an easier and a more compelling solution: to loosen our grip on the relentless pursuit of productivity. By easing up on the gas pedal of efficiency and creating jobs in what are traditionally seen as “low productivity” sectors, we have within our grasp the means to maintain or increase employment, even when the economy stagnates.
At first, this may sound crazy; we’ve become so conditioned by the language of efficiency. But there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn’t make sense at all. Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages.
In the first place, the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more and more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable. What sense does it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour? The Royal College of Nursing in Britain warned recently that front-line staff members in the National Health Service are now being “stretched to breaking point,” in the wake of staffing cuts, while a study earlier this year in the Journal of Professional Nursing revealed a worrying decline in empathy among student nurses coping with time targets and efficiency pressures. Instead of imposing meaningless productivity targets, we should be aiming to enhance and protect not only the value of the care but also the experience of the caregiver.
Sally’s burnout and big picture view of sustainability helped us improvise a plan in which the student would become the teacher. As the plan unfolded, she led the group in a textbook example of the negotiation process resulting in 10 Practices. Here’s how the process went:
- Identify the problem: Sally asked everyone to do a brain dump of all the productivity issues they were dealing with.
- Ask Diagnostic Questions: she asked why the issue was troublesome and what they wanted. Too many meetings, multitasking during meetings, saying yes to too many requests, failing to meet deadlines, stress, worry about lack of support for career development, perfectionism and process bottlenecks, finger pointing, and bandaid initiatives that sidetrack real goals, etc.
- Frame, Anchor and Brainstorm: Sally framed the issues into categories and brainstormed with the group to find an anchor—a potential solution.
- Make Concessions and Ask for Reciprocity: she created workability by identifying areas of give and take.
- Get to Agreement: The group came up with 10 practices for immediate implementation, an accountability “buddy” structure, and a monthly coaching group I would lead to assure the day’s inspiration and good intentions produced results long term.
There’s nothing startling about the 10 Practices they agreed to. Some practices are simply good etiquette, while others are could be lifted straight out of the Getting Things Done bible. What is startling about it is the ownership of their process for creating the practices, and their collective intention to put a stop to random acts of senseless productivity.
- Be present during meetings: close laptops, turn off cell phones.
- Replace excuses with requests for help.
- Set fewer goals: focus on greatness, not productivity.
- Communicate expectations: paraphrase your understanding; put agreements in writing.
- Question need/impulse for meetings: evaluate process in standing meetings; seek alternate ways to communicate progress and next steps.
- Produce terrible first drafts – a variation of “perfection is the enemy of good.”
- Say NO as often as possible and hold others in high esteem for doing so.
- Get less done: When you notice you’re multitasking or doing busy work, breathe; go for a walk (see Jessica Stillman’s Your Desk is Making You Stupid at Inc.com.).
- Create structure for unstructured time: block out protected times during the week for thinking, writing, or focusing on special projects.
- Understand and cultivate appreciation for each team member’s work style.
It was just as fascinating to observe what the group nixed from the list, but most telling was their answer to one question: how would they assure their new practices wouldn't turn into another failed bandaid initiative? They agreed to track their results and reconvene in three months to talk about lessons learned, morph and streamline their practices as necessary, develop a list of learning topics, and share their findings with leadership with the goal of transforming their entire culture.
Gulp. Part Two coming in three months.
Check out Lisa's Up Your Game Mastermind class starting September 10 here..