The Productivity Mindset

When I first visited Croatia in the 1970s, I was struck by the negative attitudes of retail workers and their reluctance to provide assistance to customers. I remember entering one shop where I felt I wasn’t allowed to touch the merchandise, let alone ask for assistance. I quickly exited.

Years later, I am reflecting on this earlier experience and comparing it to my recent visits. What a difference a government makes! In the 1970s, Croatia was ruled by a communist regime, but today its government is learning and applying democratic principles. The change in worker attitudes is unmistakably positive. This trickle-down effect can be applied at any level, macro or micro, such as at the corporate level; literally anywhere there are leaders and followers.

Imagine working in an environment that does not encourage innovation, is change averse, and does nothing to reward employees for extra effort. If you are an employee in this environment, what is your attitude? It may very well be negative and perhaps, obstructionist. Because you are not given the tools and experiences with which to flourish, your organization’s operations may even be compared to those of a Third World country.

While it is true that we, as individuals, can choose to have a positive or negative attitude, employers have a responsibility to provide an environment that encourages positive attitudes. However, this does not admonish the individual. It is simple to blame our employer for our negative attitudes, but we also need to consider that we do have a choice. We can choose to be positive or negative, no matter what our circumstances.

Some psychological studies suggest that negative attitudes may prevail when one is dissatisfied with one’s lot in life and this leads to resentment of anyone else getting ahead. A resentful person in the workplace may exhibit behaviours such as not getting things done on time, not being helpful to others, not freely offering information that they know can save time, etc. There can also be a general reluctance to behave in a businesslike or professional manner.

What does this negative behaviour contribute? It contributes obstacles to increased productivity, obstacles to higher salaries, obstacles to more jobs, obstacles to advancement, and other work-related concerns. Effectively, growth and development is stifled; not only for the individual, but also for the organization (or the country, as the case may be).

A lesson can be learned from citizens from underdeveloped countries who immigrate to developed nations. These same individuals who held negative and obstructionist attitudes in their homelands hold markedly different attitudes in their new homes. The opportunities provided by governments of developed countries help these individuals acquire positive attitudes (or, perhaps, shed the negativity that they learned in their native land). These citizens work hard to be successful because their positive attitudes propel them to succeed.

If your organization is struggling, start the evaluation at the top of the hierarchy to determine what leaders are doing to help their employees have a positive and productive mindset. Like opportunities in developed countries, positive attitudes and strong work ethics trickle down from the top.

The Cost of Ignoring Communication

A noted author recommends that people selectively ignore communications by scanning communication for two vital pieces of information:

  • Action required by you
  • Deadline for completing the action

If neither of these items is included in the communication, he says to hit the Delete key. And this applies no matter who sent the communication. The author cites a 69% chance that you’ll get this exact communication a second time and there is a 48% chance you’ll get it a third time. He may be correct about the repeated communication, but I suggest the reason the communication is repeated is that it was ignored in the first place.

If you don’t respond to senders, they will repeat their communication until you do. This wastes everyone’s time. Instead of ignoring communication, reply to all communication the first time. It is the courteous thing to do.

In a previous post, I discussed the B-F-A-T Rule for email. With Bring forward-File-Act-Toss, every email that you open in your Inbox is immediately moved out of your Inbox. The goal is to have zero “opened” items in your Inbox at the end of each day. And once you start applying the rule, you’ll be amazed at how your productivity and efficiency will increase. Not to mention that removing clutter from your email inbox will also result in reduced stress.

For every email item in your Inbox, as soon as you open it, SCAN it (or READ it) and immediately do one of the following:

Bring it forward. If the email requires more than a few minutes of your time, tag the email with a Follow-up flag, set a date reminder for yourself in the flag. Now respond to the sender and let them know when they may be getting a response from you. Then MOVE the email to the appropriate Personal Folder (or Delete it – the flag will find it for you when its schedule is due).

File it. If the email is required for reference (i.e., it has value for you and/or your organization), MOVE it from your Inbox to the appropriate Personal Folder. However, if the email has long-term value and others may need it, save it on your organization’s local area network (LAN) or use the electronic document and records management system (EDRMS), as applicable.

Act on it. If the email requires a reply and the reply will take less than a couple of minutes, REPLY to it right away and then either DELETE it (because it has no value to you) or MOVE your “Sent” email (or the original sender’s email) to the appropriate Personal Folder. Remember: even if you don’t move the email to the appropriate Personal Folder, your reply is in your SENT folder. The deleted original email will also be in the DELETE folder.

Toss it. If the email does not require a reply (e.g., mass mailings such as bulletins, newsletters, or other general communique) and has no long-term value, DELETE it.

Following the above guidelines will ensure that you always have an Inbox that is clutter-free and you will be able to locate the information that you need more quickly. In short, you will achieve productivity with your email communications. And the rule is so simple, that you’ll wonder why you never applied it before.

In addition, you’ll save time for yourself and for your senders. It’s a win-win all around.


Say What?

“Hi, John. I’m calling about the project plan for one of the projects we’re working on. It turns out that the problem we thought we had is real. So, how about changing that step in the work plan to read something like “update work plan and obtain project champion approval?” When you get that done, send it to me for review and then I’ll send it to the next person along the chain. By the way, I like that last email you sent about the re-organization. Sounds like you’re getting noticed. Probably in a good way, too. Congratulations. On another note, there’s stuff going on with my latest project – probably the only one where you’re not involved. If you need to talk, call me and I can update you on my latest project with the rest of the department. You’ve got my number.”

The above is a real voice message (names and references changed for confidentiality reasons) that lasted about 40 seconds. I don’t know about you, but I’d say this voice message is a complete waste of time, not only for the caller, but also for the listener. There are several problems with the message, not the least of which is the length of the message.

The first problem is that the caller presumes that John will recognize his/her voice. The caller also presumes that John knows what project is being referenced and further, there is an assumption that John has the caller’s number. What are the chances that the listener will be able to proceed on anything in the voice message with ease? The chances are slim to non-existent.

When leaving a voice message, remember that all business voice mail, if saved, can be called into discovery and can, at the very least, be considered a business record to which the organization has full ownership. The lesson here is: Choose your words carefully when leaving voice messages.

Experts suggest that voice mail should not exceed 20 seconds. This is easy to do if you know how to leave a voice message. Here are five guidelines to improve your voice message efficiency:

  1. Assume that no one answers their phone anymore. With this assumption, before you call, have in mind what message you will leave. If someone does happen to pick up your call, you will sound focused and articulate instead of confused and scrambling for words at the “beep.”
  2. People generally do not have time to listen to more than two points in a voice message. Prepare your message (see point 1 above) and be ready to hone in on your points right away.
  3. Be aware of your tone of voice when leaving messages. Those who leave a tone of high energy or happiness have a higher likelihood of getting a return call instead of those who sound frustrated or angry. One trick that I’ve learned over the years is to smile when leaving a message. The tone of your voice will change immediately.
  4. Use short, clear sentences when making requests by voicemail.
  5. Always leave your name and telephone number. NEVER presume that the recipient knows either.

If your message cannot be contained in 20 seconds, then leaving a voice message is not the best medium. Instead, use email, snail mail, or meet in person (leave a voicemail asking for an in-person meeting).

When leaving voicemails, remember that most people check their voicemails during time-bound moments such as between meetings. The more effort you put in to making your message clear, upbeat, and focused, the greater the likelihood that you will receive a call back sooner rather than later. It pays to put in a little effort to get the message right the first time.  

The #1 Red Light: A Lack of Urgency

There are many reasons why change may stall, but the number one reason is lack of urgency. If the project team exhibits lack of urgency toward achieving goals, this behaviour should raise immediate alarm for project champions and project leaders alike.

In some instances, a lack of urgency may be exhibited because people don’t understand why the project is being done in the first place. Clarity around goals and objectives has not been provided. When this happens, people would rather live with the problem as it currently exists than accept a solution that they do not understood.

To get staff motivated and instill urgency in making change, a clear business case must be presented about how changing will improve the organization’s condition. In addition to the superb business case, extensive training and communication must be undertaken early on and throughout the process. If not, lack of urgency will persist.

Here are some other ways in which to handle lack of urgency:

  1. Evaluate the external threats to the organization. These threats may form the basis of a business case to get the project moving and to instill urgency. Benchmarking is also an effective tool to identify what things the organization can do to differentiate themselves from the competition.
  2. Educate top management to help them understand how the initiative can directly help their performance as well as the performance of their organization. Top-down commitment to the project is important.
  3. Align metrics and goals. Define three to seven major goals and how they will improve the organization’s condition. If the list is larger than this, “analysis paralysis” may overwhelm employees and nothing will get done.
  4. Through regular communication, expose employees to concepts and possibilities of new paradigms and the benefits of doing things differently. Show them, don’t just tell them. Use examples from other organizations or even from small implementations in different parts of their organization.
  5. Do a pilot project for a quick hit. The pilot project should provide visible and undeniable evidence of success that employees can see very quickly. When they see this, they can visualize future success for the whole company. Along these lines, people sometimes may need to see why not changing will inhibit future success; almost moreso than how changing will improve the chances for success.
  6. Buffer employees from top management so they can try some new things without management always saying nay. It’s sometimes easier to apologize after the fact, rather than ask for permission beforehand. Let employees implement small changes, so they can prove that thee concept works not only to themselves, but to the organization as a whole. By doing so, some urgency will be diverted back into the organization.

When the organization has a sense of urgency for change, not only is it likely that the project is completed within its allotted timeframe, but there is also a greater likelihood of sustainable change. In fact, some experts suggest that change should be delivered with urgency and in no more than nine months. So if you’ve got a large project, break it out into bite-size pieces so that each piece can be completed in a few months. By doing this, you will have many examples of successful wins to demonstrate to management that long-term success can be achieved along with sustainable change.

A-Z Filing is Not a Best Practice

I was surprised and amused recently to learn that a well-known productivity guru is a proponent of alphabetical filing systems for individuals – i.e., an “A-Z” arrangement for reference materials. In addition, he advocates having on hand “lots of fresh folders” and a rule of thumb to reorder folders when the number on hand drops below one hundred.

My advice is that if you really have so much filing, it’s time to stop and evaluate what you’re keeping and why. Having fresh file folders on hand to file anything that looks interesting is just ridiculous, not to mention a waste of time and resources. And if you are doing this, when was the last time you looked at that article you saved on gardening?  And do you even remember where you filed it? G for gardening? P for pruning? F for fertilizer?

Paper filing is still necessary in many offices, but the push is toward electronic filing, and rightly so, since there is less waste. Regardless if you’re using paper or electronic or both, either method should follow the same principles. That is, filing should be based on a classification system that has less than 25 root folders with sub-folders relating to the function and subject of the root.

Let’s take, for example, administrative files. Regardless of your business, your office has administrative files. These files fall under the broad categories (roots) of:

  • Administration
  • Equipment 
  • Facilities
  • Finance
  • Human Resources
  • Information Technology.

Simply stated, these six root directories cover ALL of your administrative filing.

Under each of these categories, you will have a few or several main (primary) categories or subjects of records. And under this, you may have many cases of each subject. Look at employee files, for instance. Whether paper or electronic, employee files are cases of the subject “employee files” that belongs under the main category “human resources.” If you’re filing employee files electronically, your electronic directory might look like this:

  • Human resources
    •                 Employee files
        •                                 Clark, John
        •                                 Smith, Susan

Under “Clark, John,” for instance, file all documentation relating to John Clark, regardless if they’re Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, scanned images, or some other file format. This way, everything to do with John Clark is contained in his “employee file” under the broad category of human resources. Having all documents together like this makes it easy to apply retention schedules.

If you do not contain your files in a hierarchical system, there’s a strong probability that your document(s) might end up in an incorrect folder. And if it’s in an incorrect folder (because the overall structure is incorrect), what happens? You end up creating a new folder, one that “you know” you will remember and you file there, but no one else might think to look there. What you’ve just done is duplicated filing and the original folder can no longer be relied upon to contain all documentation. Not only that, you’ve now used more space than necessary to create the new folder (whether electronic or paper).

The bottom line is that filing and managing records is not something that should be taken lightly, since if it’s done incorrectly, repercussions can go beyond just a bad filing system and wasted time and resources. At the very least, integrity of files is lost leaving the system to be unreliable, unusable, unwieldy, out of control, and at the end of the day, a useless waste of space, money, and time.

Next time you plan to file something, whether paper or electronic; ask yourself if the system is actually working for you and the organization. If it’s not, it may be time to call an expert.


Dimensions of Change

Are you and your organization productive and efficient? Most people say that they and their organization are both. However, I have found this not to be the case in many organizations.  

At a recent process and value stream mapping exercise, staff expressed a desire to change their operations for the better and acknowledged that they had many process issues that needed “fixing.” However, they were confused about how they or the organization should proceed. They were also frustrated, indicating that their busy schedules would hamper change. This organization is not atypical in its reaction to change.

In managing organization-wide change, researchers have identified six elements that must be in place for change to be successful. If any of the elements is missing, successful change will not occur. Here is how these elements impact organizational change:

  1. If there is no vision, there is confusion.
  2. If there are insufficient skills, there is anxiety.
  3. If there are no incentives, there is resistance.
  4. If there are insufficient resources, there is frustration.
  5. If there is no action plan, there are false starts.
  6. If there is no collegiality, there is isolation.

When an organization has a vision, it focuses on achieving the vision. Whether it is through strategic, business, or service plans, the vision must be clear and it must be communicated to all staff. And it must be understood. When the vision is understood, the organization’s goals and objectives are clear.

Insufficient skills to meet the organization’s strategy are a key component in change. If skills are lacking, staff will feel anxious about their roles. When anxiety is present, inefficiency and poor productivity are also present. Provide training, coaching, and counseling to ensure that staff have the necessary skills to do their jobs.

Incentives are very important for motivating staff to change. Both financial and non-financial rewards can be equally effective at stimulating change. Examples of financial rewards include fair compensation, bonuses for work performance, or relocation support and housing. Non-financial incentives may include a quality culture, public recognition and awards, study leave, and mentoring in the work place, to name only a few.

Resources are another important factor in successful change. Simply stated, if there are insufficient resources to make change happen, then change will either not occur or will be slow to occur. Depending on the organization’s desire for change, resources must be ample, so that staff do not become discouraged with the pace of change.

Sometimes organizations forget about the importance of having action plans in place to guide change. Having an action (or implementation) plan provides everyone with a “road map” to change. In short, it allows all those involved in the change process to know exactly what is expected, who is responsible, and the timeline and process for achieving tasks to effect change.

And don’t forget about collegiality. It’s much nicer to work with colleagues with whom you share mutual respect than it is to endure hostility. Organizations need to ensure that their staff are well suited to the culture and that the culture promotes collegiality.

Managing change is not an easy task, especially if the change involves a large-scale project, but if all of the dimensions of change are in place, successful change can be a certainty.