Monday, July 28, 2008

Notes from the Productivity Industrial Complex

My friend, Nwokedi, suggested I read this (below). Like the diversity workshops that were legion during the 80's and 90's, productivity discussions tend to focus on what's in the best interest of companies and not in the best interest of people. To take a deeper cut at that, they tend to focus on "getting things done" but not as much on "getting the right things done." Even the Covey workshops. the self-appointed Gold Standard of the Productivity Industrial Complex, doesn't have much to say about how a lowly employee, having happily sorted their tasks into A, B and C priorities, can prevail upon their leader to moving the C items off everyone's list. As workplaces continue to contract, workers are doing more, but very little job redesign is happening.

I’ll include my thoughts inline with the quoted text:

Alternative Productivity’s Tenets (David Allen):

  1. “Productivity” is an Industrial Era economics term that applies to factories, machines, and economies. When applied to people it often has a dehumanizing effect and negates both individual differences and unique talents.

    : Amen. I found myself concerned about the entire concept of "productivity." As an economic term, it refers to a ratio of outputs to inputs, like labor productivity as the relationship between results and the work that went into their creation. People aren’t machines and even a machine can’t simply be tasked to produce more without looking at upstream and down stream inputs and outputs as well as system capabilities. We are more concerned with equipment failure from being over-stressed than we are about burning out people.
  2. If your productivity increases, but your pay stays the same, then you’re effectively taking a pay cut (same goes if you begin working longer hours for the same pay).

    : This is a conversation I have with consultants constantly. One bragged to me about his hourly rate. When I asked him to calculate how many hours he was working this billing cycle and how much money he was getting, he quietly began scribbling (“I’ll show you.”). You can’t imagine the look of horror on his face when he figured out that his effective hourly rate was one-fifth his rack rate. We had a long talk that afternoon that shifted his world.
  3. The 40-hour work week hasn’t changed since 1940 and is ridiculously outdated.
  4. If you’re consistently having trouble focusing, it’s often because you’re focusing on the wrong things (i.e. things you’re not passionate about or things that aren’t best suited to your skillset).

    : Trouble focusing may be a symptom of memory erosion as our plates get more and more full. People today have access, in one issue of the New York Times, to more information than was available to the average human being in an entire lifetime just a century ago. As hoards of new information are being fed in, other information is organized for long-term storage--even if that information is needed for short-term, immediate use. Add in stress, which has been proven to reduce retention and attentiveness, and it gets, I forgot what I was writing about....*

    Frankly, we aren’t experiencing a focus deficit: we’re experiencing too much garbage on the plate with little leadership support to move it to the trash where it belongs.
  5. Increased productivity should equal less time on the job. If you’re getting more done, you should get more vacation time.

    : Not sure how this follows as employers are able to set up, within legally-prescribed limits, any kind of work rules they choose. Besides, there is an important external driver pressuring leaders to produce more: stockholders. These “owners” are interested in one thing and than it increased revenue for their investment. Few leaders at the C-Suite level are willing to buck their boards or say “No mas” at stockholders’ meetings where initiatives are being put forth that will impact the footprint the job takes up in a worker’s life.
  6. Most best-selling productivity gurus are working in the interests of large corporations and often advocate values and approaches that are not in the best interests of individuals.

    Working in the best interests of companies? Not if these productivity gurus aren't tying their programs to retention. As people run out of bandwidth, they leave. In droves. Over a decade ago, HR strategists started seeing an increasing trend for “downshifting” where career climbers chose to shift career tracks to paths that would allow for more time to engage in other pursuits (see how I didn’t say “work/life balance”—a term I despise...but that’s another post).

    A rule of thumb for calculating the cost of turnover is to take an employee's salary and divide it by 30%. That, very roughly, is base cost of turnover for that one position. Add in a recruiter’s fee or executive signing bonuses, stock options or Golden Parachutes (like a prenupt for the C-Suite set) and the percentage continues to climb. In addition, it can take months for a newly-placed staffer to gain proficiency in a new corporate and departmental cultures and the expectations of the job.

    Then there’s the matter of proof. Most productivity workshops have never been vetted for validity (measures the right things) and reliability (measures consistently over time). They "work" simply because the guru has collected anecdotal information from participants that says so.

    Just a tad self-referential, no?
  7. Increased productivity should result in greater carefree time, more vacations, and more time away from work. Most of the time, however, it does not.
  8. We are living in a time and place that is more “productive” than ever before, but high levels of productivity aren’t making us any happier.

    : Please. “Productive” is not the same as “effective.” You can be doing a lot of things, but not the right things.

    You and I both know people who, during meetings, answer phone calls and respond to or send emails. By not focusing on the people in front of them, meeting durations balloon as topics are started and stopped over and over again. In addition, there’s the little matter of credibility. Doing everything else at a meeting but conducting the meeting is seen as incredibly rude, impacting future promotional opportunities and damaging key relationships.

    Measures of effectiveness can easily been found in most process improvement initiatives with a clearly-defined outcome stated in advance and work to reduce variation around that stated goal. Not so in productivity workshops, which tend to operate at the tactical level rather than the strategic.
  9. Productivity should be designed around our lives, not the other way around.

    : Productivity should be designed around systems of increased effectiveness inside a value chain which should connect to desired outcomes which should connect to the strategic mission of the department, the business unit and the company.

  10. The workforce is laboring for more hours and for less pay, taking fewer vacations, and generally burning out.

    : Yup. In another entry I scribed, I detailed the differences in vacation for the major developed nations. The US leads the pack of industrialized nations in the lack of vacation time: That’s less than France, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Japan and Canada. A whopping 26% of US workers take no vacation at all. Many who do, spend more time with their Blackberrys than they do their families, fearing that if they’re too disconnected (1) people will figure out that they’re expendable and (2) the workload when they return will be insurmountable.

  11. The best way to increase productivity is often to quit a lot of things.

    Lalita: Good idea, but most leaders are unwilling to insist on job re-design or to challenge their leaders on the best use of their staffers’ time.

  12. Productivity often poses as the self-development genre but it is not. Self-development and productivity are two very different things. What is best for us as individuals is often bad for productivity.

    : Huh? People development and the resulting impacts on productivity are connected.

  13. The societally scripted routes to success via productivity are failing us.

  14. Products marketed towards busy people (e.g. “Productivity for Busy People,” “Cooking for Busy People,” etc.) only serve to reinforce the problem and often glamorize, excuse, and support the unnecessarily busy life and cult of hyper-efficiency.

    : Is there really something “sexy” about scurrying about like a rat in a maze? Really? Telegraphing that you can't get meaningful work done in a humane way is glamouous? Indeed.

  15. Hacks, tweaks, tricks, etc. have emerged from a productivity hobbyist culture, are largely insufficient at solving bigger life problems, and often do not increase productivity. These hacks etc. are vestiges of the largely "techie" demographic of the early (but self-reinforcing) blogosphere.

  16. Early to bed, early to rise does not necessarily lead to greater productivity. Contrary to several blog posts advocating early rising as a means to greater productivity, the practice of early rising can actually be harmful.

    : Cookie-cutter fixes assume that we’re all the same and have the same requirements. Not so. I get some of my best writing done late at night. Telling me to go to bed at 10 would have me running out the door with my hair on fire. However, an early bird who’s staying up late, can benefit from supports to get to bed at their earlier bedtime.

    In a conversation with a fledgeling business owner, he asked me my opinion about something his "coach" (a marketing consultant who had decided--damn the skillset--to hang out a shingle as a business coach) had said. "Lalita, he told me to play business development CD's in my car while I'm driving." When I asked him what he really liked to do while driving he said "Listen to music." Guess what I told him to do? And I'm looking for his "coach" to suggest he stop treating his clients like they're all him.

  17. More technology often leads to decreased productivity.

  18. Hyper-focusing on productivity often gets in the way of the messy, circuitous, and discursive routes of personal development.

  19. When most people speak of productivity in the office, they’re usually speaking about a specific kind of productivity: cubical-land, desk-job, information-worker productivity. The methods used to produce this kind of productivity often do not generalize to other contexts.

  20. No productivity system can put you in a zen like, meditative, or mind like water state. A calm, focused, and meditative mind leads to greater productivity, but productivity systems cannot create a mind like water.

  21. Too much productivity can turn you into a real tool.

  22. Massive value creation often happens during times when no work is ostensibly being accomplished and productivity levels are ostensibly nil.

  23. What makes people productive varies considerably from person to person.

    Lalita: Huzzah! Truer words have not been written. Task -related productivity is the "booby prize." Figuring out the right things to do and then getting the barriers out of the way so we can focus on the most effective ways of doing those things--that's the juicy cherry.

  24. Productivity is often a necessary evil: if you dislike your job, you’re going to need a water-tight productivity system in place to keep you on task.
  25. Productivity should be designed around lives, not the other way around.