Productivity is an elusive goal.
Sometimes new methods help. Sometimes better training or additional support staff. Sometimes it is just not there. There are some places to begin looking for the elusive.
- If you believe Pareto’s law you find that 20% of the effort generates 80% of the performance. You might start with trying to understand which 20% that is. It is easy to have the other part become dominant. Political ideas for example.
- Focus matters but only if you focus properly. Much of productivity effort is based on doing things right. That is worthy but it has diminishing value. How much improvement is available and what do you do when you have achieved Pareto’s 80%?
- Doing things right is important but more effort should direct towards doing right things. Efficiency can never outperform effectiveness.
- Multitasking is a trap. No human is good at it. Cell phone laws that require hands free are a political gesture towards the problem of distracted driving. Hands free is not materially less distracting. Using a cellphone while driving is roughly the same as driving with a blood alcohol level of .12. Other multitasking is just as futile.
- There is a difference between working and being busy. Many of the busy things are unnecessary and any system of creating priorities will reduce the problem.
- Being productive is the exact opposite of writing exams successfully. In exam writing you do what is easiest and quickest first. Productivity requires some method of setting priorities. Delegate easiest and quickest to someone with less skill and experience.
- People can learn delegations skills. The keys are to delegate a clear result, assign sufficient money and time resources to achieve the goal, assign a knowledge resource for when an obstacle appears, and provide a reasonable oversight method so that dead ends and other errors are caught soon. Ideally after the person learns something from the mistake. It is not okay to delegate your method of doing the task. “If I were you” is a trap. Try to avoid it.
- Plan interruptions. A knowledge worker manipulates many facts when working. They are held at a barely conscious level and recreating the order is difficult. An air traffic controller does not start their shift by sitting down before the screen and wondering where are the airplanes. It takes several minutes to create the complex pattern that they work with intuitively. The hand-off of duties requires that shifts overlap a little. If you interrupt a lawyer thinking about an agreement or an accountant working on a financing proposal, it will take them 15 to 30 minutes to get back to where they were. Set aside time for phone calls and email.
- Stay refreshed. When you are fatigued, higher brain functions go first. Build in breaks. The army marches 50 minutes in the hour because they know that battlefields are highly Darwinian. The soldiers with the weakest high brain function go first.
If your task is worth doing, it is worth doing productively. Productivity creates resources to solve other problems or to take advantage of other opportunities.
Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.