It’s Not My Responsibility

When I need to facilitate a meeting, I arrive early to set up the meeting room to create a positive environment for the participants. When I leave, I make sure the room is tidy for the next facilitator. However, even if I use the same meeting room several times a week, each time I arrive, the room is in disarray. Why does this reoccur? The simple reason is: Because no ONE person is in charge.

When an organization does not take the time to identify and assign responsibility for every task, right down to details such as who is in charge of meeting room cleanliness or putting dishes into a dishwasher, it wastes time and creates confusion and frustration for its employees. The key to undoing this confusion is communication. Communicate and clarify roles and responsibilities for everything; and I do mean EVERYTHING. Here are some examples where time can be wasted when responsibilities are not clear.

  1. A task will not get done if two people think that the other is responsible for doing the task. To ensure there is clarity, check with the other person to confirm that he/she is responsible for the task. Better yet, management needs to communicate the responsibility and clarify this directly with the person(s) to whom they have delegated the task.
  2. If two people think they’re both responsible for a task, the task will get done twice (or perhaps not at all). As in example 1 above, communication is the key to ensuring that this timewaster does not occur.
  3. If one person is assigned a task, but others who need to involved in the task are not aware of this assignment, the others may not cooperate. Think about projects. If resources are assigned to projects, but those resources (employees) are not aware they are to complete tasks on the project, the tasks will not get done. Again, communication is key. Assemble all those who need to be involved in the work and communicate and delegate responsibilities. Then clarify directly with the resources that they understand and will undertake their responsibilities.
  4. What occurs when more than one person is in charge? Confusion and, perhaps, conflicting instructions. This is similar to example 2 except that in this case, the task may get done differently twice.

If the above situations sound familiar, then get clarity about your role and what responsibility and authority you have for a given task. Never assume that someone else is in charge or that you are in charge. Overlapping or confused responsibilities serve only to waste time.

Just Thinking About It Won’t Get You There

One of the things that I’ve discovered is that many people are great at planning–thinking about how to change processes or things to produce better outcomes. However, when it comes to reducing their plans to projects or actionable tasks, they get stuck. If you tend to fall in this group, spending your days thinking about what you need to get done, but never seem to launch out of thinking mode, then read on. I’ve got good news for you in the form of lists and schedules.

Actionable lists can help you define your projects and move you from thinking about what needs to get done to working on identifying tasks that will get you there. Lists provide visual cues and reminders to do the work. Having said this, just writing things down and being reminded to do them won’t get you there, either. What if you forget to look at your list regularly? This is where schedules can help.

Schedules keep you on track. When you know what needs doing (from your action list), use your calendar (I use my email calendar) to schedule time into your day (every day) for every single thing that needs to be done. Think of a schedule as a reminder of your action list.

When scheduling work on a project, try to schedule the same type of work at the same time of day. For example, if you need to provide a project update report to your boss, schedule it for the same time each week (or day) as the case may be. This provides consistency in work and you are more apt to do this task if it occurs at roughly the same time. The nice thing about scheduling consistently is that the more you do the same thing at the same time, there is a point at which you won’t need to look at your schedule to be reminded to do the work.

When working on tasks, work in short bursts. Typically, we tend to be very focused for either the first 20 or last 20 minutes of our tasks. If you can focus intently on your work for those 20 minutes and then take a break (look away from your work–perhaps look out the window, make a phone call, review your email, anything other than the task you are working on), you will be more productive than if you slogged at the task for hours. Using this short burst method, you will also develop better quality work.

For difficult tasks, schedule them during times of the day when you are most alert. If you’re high energy in the morning, then work on your difficult tasks in the morning and leave your afternoons for other tasks that allow greater flexibility in deadlines.

What’s on your action list this month? A better question may be: where is your list? Is your list physically (or electronically) written in a place where you can easily find it? Or are you thinking about it? Remember to dump that list from your mind to create action items that can be scheduled. This is your stepping stone to success, no matter what you’re working on.

Involuntary Systems are the Key to Success

Have you ever thought about how many times your heart beats in a second, minute, day, or hour? Very few of us ever think about how our body functions, yet there it is–doing an amazing job of balancing all of our internal systems to keep us alive.

A parallel can be made between our involuntary body systems and “involuntary” systems of organization that help us achieve success. Imagine having to tell your heart each time blood needs to pump or to tell your lungs when it’s time to breathe. This would be a very inefficient way of managing our body, not to mention it would be an all-consuming exercise leaving us with no time to do anything else. Likewise with office or personal organization systems, if they are not “second nature” or “involuntary” for us, we continue to struggle with disorganization, stress, procrastination, overwhelm, and other symptoms that hinder our productivity.

An organized person knows (almost intuitively) their priorities including where to find information and how to manage their time. Each time they need to work on a priority item, they know immediately how to go about it. They do not create a new system(s) for prioritizing or getting organized. They have created efficient workflow systems, so they need very little time to maintain or think about them. Much like the involuntary heart beats.

Think about a records management system that includes filing cabinets stuffed with file folders and documents. The file folders are labeled, but there is no consistency in labeling or filing. Do you think this system is easy to use? No, it is not. And because it is not easy to use, each time you need to file something, you need to think about how and where you will file your documents. This takes up your time and energy and creates stress. An intuitively organized filing system, on the other hand, enables you to file “automatically” and keep work flowing seamlessly.

Other examples include the manner in which invoices are expedited for payment or the way in which patients are triaged at medical clinics. Once the workflow process is set up and procedures learned for each process, you no longer need to waste time thinking about how to do something. In effect, your process and procedures have enabled you to devise your own automatic system for the way you work. The work becomes second nature. The more automatic the flow, the more organized the system.

A nice side effect of automatic processes and systems is that they enable us to be more creative. This is because we do not have to think about the process or system–we just do our work; like our heart beating in the background, our process and systems are also in silent mode. This enables our minds the freedom to explore new opportunities, giving us the ability to be even more productive.

Next time you work on a task, ask yourself if you need to rely on procedures each time or has the task become automatic. If you need to spend time thinking about how to approach the same task each time, then ask how you can make your thinking about the work more automatic. You owe it to yourself to make your tasks as automatic as possible, so that thinking about the systems and processes doesn’t detract from your ability to use them.


Head, Heart, Hands – Do You Know What You’re Doing?

We all do it – incessantly discharge tasks, so that we can move on to the next one. And sometime, in our haste, overwhelm of tasks that are not completed and are waiting for our attention stops us in our tracks. Why do we bother with completing task after task, since there never seems to be a finish line? This “hum” of never ending tasks usurps our energy and causes us to view work as an irritation, rather than an opportunity.

When we find ourselves diverted from our work by the barrage of demands in our mind, it is because we have not been able to understand the purpose of what it is that we are doing. This occurs when we do not activate all three centers of thinking, i.e., head, heart, and hands. To reduce brain “hum” and accomplish tasks efficiently, we need to be working with purpose using not only our head, but our heart and our hands, as well. Let me explain what I mean.

The head, heart, and hands framework is about finding the balance in what you know, what you feel, and who you are and what you do. In business, we instinctively gear to using information (head) to execute tasks without considering how this approach impacts our attitude/emotions (heart) or our actions (hands) toward our work. If we don’t engage all three activation centers, we end up speeding through tasks just so we can get on to the next one (i.e., think: robots). In the process, we become devoid of feelings toward our work, spiraling through it in the hope that once we complete this task, the next one will be better. This reduces our efficiency and our productivity. It also increases our dissatisfaction with the work.

To become truly efficient and productive in everything we do, we need to focus on our work not only with our head, but also with our heart and our hands. The more we can focus emotionally, the more we are able to productively engage with our work. As a result, our efficiency soars. In fact, one of the best ways to develop focus is by having fun with your work.

Have fun with your work by viewing your work objectively (i.e., place it in your mind’s “hand” to have a good look at what it is you are to do and the purpose of the task). Do you understand what you’re doing or what is expected on this task? When you know what the work is about and how you feel about it, you are able to execute successfully.

Practice engaging with your work using the head, heart, and hands framework to understand what you wish to accomplish and to change your behavior toward your work. The resulting improved efficiency will create a happier “you,” quashing the endless hum of tasks and creating clarity of purpose.

Reclaiming Knowledge Work’s Lost Productivity

In the mid-20th Century, Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” and said that productivity of the knowledge worker would be “the biggest of the 21st Century management challenges.” He was right. In fact, knowledge workers and manual workers are no longer exclusive–technology has blurred the lines of work such that even workers loading product onto conveyer belts are no longer exempt from being classified as knowledge workers.

Without technology and the onslaught of the need to process information, productivity was easier to measure (both inputs and outputs), since the work was easier to see. In the typical factory setting, workers come to work, see the work in front of them, and get it done. At the end of the day, one can see how much product is produced. But how does one measure the value of a report or a meeting that has no tangible product? Not only is knowledge work productivity more difficult to measure, but productivity has also decreased because of knowledge work.

One of the reasons for lowered productivity in knowledge work is the greater need for critical thinking skills; skills that were not in demand in the early 20th Century. These skills include the ability to make decisions about what needs to be done with the paperwork on our desks, the ability to understand and monitor the outcomes and required actions to complete our tasks successfully, and the ability to follow a schedule that allows us the freedom to prioritize our work as suits both our personal working style and our employer’s requirements. Depending on whether we execute these skills efficiently determines whether we are productive.

In addtion to the need for critical thinking skills and efficient execution of individual work plans, organizations can no longer selectively disseminate information to their workers if they expect to improve organizational productivity. They need to share everything so that all employees can glean what is useful for their work. For example, Dow Chemical shares its day sales and inventory numbers with everybody in the company. Dow recognizes that if people understand how their actions contribute or detract from business results, they will do a better job (source: Chris Webber, The Economist Group).

Improving an organization’s productivity is no longer a selective process and it certainly cannot be done in silos. It must involve the entire organization. Here are five things you can do right now to improve your organization’s productivity:

  1. Share all company information. The organizations’ executives can no longer hide information behind the “need to know.” Everyone in the organization needs to know what’s going on in the organization. If people are kept in the dark, then your company is limiting its productivity.
  2. Eliminate deep hierarchical structures. They serve no one well in the organization, least of all those at the top.
  3. Involve all employees in decision making. It may be exactly the insights of the mail room clerk that can help your company move its strategic plan forward.
  4. Use technology to improve information sharing and collaboration. Upgrade your records and information systems so that everyone is able to access information readily. Implement workflow systems to enable everyone to be more productive.
  5. Use annual performance reviews not only to set individual goals, but also to find out from each employee how well they think the company is doing. This should be a time of joint goal setting and improvement for the coming year.

At the end of the day, productivity doesn’t happen by itself. The thinking that goes into knowledge work can provide powerful outcomes for an organization. But this can only occur if the organization recognizes and supports the potential in its workers. It can be a productive win-win.