Tradition and Productivity

In the acclaimed Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, the main character, Tevye, explains his society’s traditions in the song “Tradition.” The song juxtaposes village life to a world that is changing all around them.

In many respects, struggles faced in today’s organizations may be rooted in difficulty in letting go of tradition—an inability to change.

Consider that the world’s most successful organizations have one thing in common: they are able to adapt quickly to change. Aside from the fact that the top 20 companies in the world are all in the field of technology, this in itself is telling—companies that have embraced technology are the companies that continue to lead in both earnings and productivity.

To improve performance and productivity, companies use technology and its related gadgets, but if the technology does not provide useful information to the user and the organization as a whole, its usefulness is limiting. Technological tools must be able to provide information about performance in both directions. Let me give you an example.

Some companies implemented a web-based time sheet manager that includes two measures of productivity on projects—one for the employee and the other for their team. While the system encourages productivity, it only measures performance one-way—the way the organization has determined correct.

In this example, time sheet measures provide what the organization is looking for, but what is missing is employee input. Meeting targets is one thing, but did the employee agree to the targets in the first place? Are the targets realistic? How has meeting the targets impacted employee wellbeing? These and other considerations need to be incorporated within performance measures to not only improve on performance measures, but to improve on the activities that comprise productivity.

The approach described is typical of many organizations. It is, by all accounts, traditional and one-way—company to employee.

Company demands for maximum productivity needs to be coupled with meeting employee demands. This includes understanding the individual and their work as well as understanding what the individual needs to get their work done. In other words, companies need to listen to their employees before developing systems. This is especially true in today’s economy where Generation X and Generation Y have already displaced the Baby Boomers in the workforce.

Successful organizations need to change their systems and processes to meet the needs of the “what’s in it for me” generation (X) as well as the Gen Y kids who are very technology-wise and “immune to most traditional marketing and sales pitches.”

The tradition carried into the workplace by Baby Boomers no longer meets the needs of organizations. Insisting on maintaining practices started in the 20th Century is not a tradition that will benefit 21st Century companies. The successful organizations of the 21st Century will want to work with their individual employees to learn how to accomplish more for the benefit of both employees and the organization.

Purge Parties are a Team Sport

For organizations focused on improving their productivity, there’s nothing like a purge party to get staff motivated. Not only do purge parties help staff manage their work space, but purge parties are especially useful for clearing outdated and useless office records.

By “purging” all unnecessary items, including records, from individual and shared workspaces, more space is acquired and essential items are kept and categorized for efficient retrieval.

The advantages to purge parties include the following:

  • Increased staff productivity by decreasing the search and retrieval time for items (i.e., fewer items to search means faster search times).
  • Elimination of duplicated records.
  • Minimized legal exposure—court cases demonstrate that records retained longer than needed typically hurt the organization.
  • Reduced storage costs both onsite and offsite.
  • More floor space is acquired in the office.

To conduct a purge party, convene an all-day staff meeting (or one-half-day, depending on the size of your office) and notify staff that there will be a purge party. Advise staff to wear comfortable clothing for the meeting. Let them know that donuts and coffee will be provided (it is a party, after all!).

At the meeting, go over the rules of the purge party and answer questions. This should take no more than 30 minutes. After this, with supplies on hand (e.g., boxes, masking tape, markers, packing tape, recycling boxes, etc.), each staff returns to their desk and starts purging.

Start purging where most documents land—on your desk! To help you start purging, consider the following:

  • If you are left-handed, locate items you need to reach regularly on your right (e.g., your telephone) and vice versa. Why? If you’re right-handed, you pick up the phone with your left hand, leaving your right hand free to take notes.
  • Which items do you use every day? Keep them on your desk.
  • Which items do you use at least once a week? Keep them in your desk drawer(s).
  • Which items do you use no more than once a month? Keep them in your filing cabinet (if records) or your book case (if books) or in a storage cabinet (other items).
  • Which items do you never/rarely use? Keep them in an archive or storage area as designated by your office or discard if the item has no value. Most “never/rarely use” items are discard items.

Once you’ve organized your desk, here are some “de-cluttering” guidelines to ensure you get maximum value from the purge.

  • Work clockwise around the room.
  • Start clean-up of visible surfaces first.
  • Divide your work into four quadrants (“piles”)—work on one quadrant at a time—first finish one pile before moving to the next one.

The best person to purge an office is the owner of the office. They are the most knowledgeable about what records, books, and other items are necessary for efficient workflow.

After a purge party of the physical office space, companies realize about 40% more space—space freed up when records, books, and other knickknacks are sorted or discarded.

Most people don’t realize how freeing a purge party can be for individuals and organizations. It is well worth the day to engage your employees in this team sport to not only increase morale, but efficiency and productivity going forward.

Changing Culture: One Person at a Time

Culture is defined as “group norms of behaviour and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place.” For example, look at the typical meetings in your office. Is everyone on time or do meetings usually start five to ten minutes later than schedule?

What about attention to detail? Do final project reports receive a thorough review and commentary or are they filed as received? These scenarios represent organizational culture.

If your employees are stressed, overwhelmed, or procrastinate on deadlines, or if your company is always underperforming, don’t blame your employees. Blame your organization’s leaders.

An organization’s leaders or founders establish values that permeate through the organization and manifest in behaviours. The more these behaviours loop back to the leaders’ own values, the more they are reinforced and perpetuated throughout the organization.

To change an organization’s culture, the leaders must change their own values and behaviours. They can do this by creating a vision for the company and telling the story about how working toward the vision will help the company and its employees grow.

In addition, leaders need to be persuasive and model the behaviour that they wish to see from their employees; frequently engaging in conversations with all staff to “sell” the vision and inspire their staff. This is the correct approach.

An incorrect approach to changing organizational culture is through disincentives such as coercion, threats, or punishment. All of these “power tools” may work to incite change in employees’ or departmental behaviours, but the change is temporary at best. Using power tools to influence cultural change is not sustainable or desirable.

Here are four considerations for changing your organization’s culture to one that is efficient, productive and effective:

  1. Sell the new vision and enlist early adopters and those that are on the fence to join you in selling the vision. Once they do, ensure that they are recognized for their accomplishments.
  2. Don’t just preach about the need for change. Use examples from your company that demonstrate an urgency for change. For instance, have managers take calls from disgruntled customers to understand why customers are cancelling orders at the last minute, leaving the company in the hole by $100,000 for each product design prototype that is not purchased.
  3. Redistribute resources to the 20 percent of areas that produce 80 percent of the company’s results. These are areas where implementing change first will have a tremendous impact organization-wide.
  4. Enlist an individual in your company called a “consigliere” (source: Blue Ocean Strategy). This individual will find out who is fighting change, who is supporting change, and what you need to do to build strategies for sustainable change.

To this last point, a stumbling block to any change initiative is typically an “old guard” mentality that is steadfastly held, usually by long-time employees. Leaders must expect to spend a great deal of time with these individuals to get them to buy into the organization’s new vision, so that they don’t disrupt the new way forward.

Changing an organization’s culture is probably one of the hardest things that leaders will do. It’s a slow process, but the rewards of working in a vibrant company where respect and appreciation of everyone’s time are top of mind will go a long way to ensuring long term organizational and personal success.

The Good and Bad of Habits

Habits allow us to not “think” about what we are doing, they’re an automatic response to stimuli. They can be useful when we are engaged in rote or mundane activities like the way we get up in the morning, the way we shower, or the way we clean the house. Because we don’t have to think about these activities, we can do them quickly and free our mind to think about other things such as planning our day.

While habits can help speed up some activities, they can also inhibit us from being successful. In fact, if you examine the results of your life and if you’re honest with yourself, you can quickly attribute your results to your habits. For instance, if you choose to procrastinate, if you consistently neglect to deliver on promises, if you handle work more than once (i.e., keep shuffling your “to-do’s” to the back of the pile consistently), if you save opened email in your inbox; then all of these habits lead you to experience a more stressful life. And with repetition of bad habits, stress compounds to  create even more stress.

Research shows that up to 90% of our behaviour is based in habit; but research also shows that habits can be modified in as little as 12 weeks. While the reasons why we engage in self-defeating habits can be as varied as the individuals themselves, there are ways to get on the track to success. Here are the steps you can take to eliminate your bad habits:

  1. Identify your negative habits. Write them down and have a good look at them.
  2. Select one habit that you wish to improve. (Yes, only one!).
  3. Identify behaviours that will replace the one habit you selected.
  4. Start practicing the new behavior(s) every day and keep practicing it for at least three months until it becomes habit. To help with this, use reminders–perhaps by placing post-it notes in locations you can’t miss, using pop-up reminders/alarms in your email calendar, or engaging others to assist you (e.g., coaching, telephone or other reminders, etc.).
  5. Commit to a “no exceptions” rule to stay on track with your new habit.

The last item, committing to a no exceptions rule is very important. If we decide to waver even slightly, our efforts may not pay off. Imagine if organizations decided to be “flexible” with their policies and procedures and allowed some exceptions, claiming that 99.9% is good enough. This would mean that your municipality would be okay with providing one hour of unsafe drinking water per month or two unsafe landings at major airports each day are acceptable or it’s okay for doctors around the country to drop 50 newborn babies at birth every day–I’m sure you’ll agree that none of these scenarios is acceptable.

If you replace one bad habit with a new behavior every three months, you will acquire four new positive habits each year. This translates to at least four steps closer to a more successful life–whatever success may look like for you.

The Facts on Multitasking

The term “multitasking” is derived from “computer multitasking,” first coined in the 1960s by I.B.M.  A computer’s ability to multitask is due to its many core microprocessors; each microprocessor capable of performing one task. With microprocessors running simultaneously, there is a perception that computers are multitasking where, in fact, the multiple microprocessors are performing separate tasks simultaneously.

Edward Hallowell, noted psychiatrist and author, describes multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” As any efficiency expert can tell you, Hallowell is correct – people cannot perform two or more tasks simultaneously as efficiently as one. Several research studies have been conducted to support this finding.

So why do people multitask? The answers to this question are as varied as the individuals who multitask. Perhaps it’s to meet a deadline or the adrenaline rush of working on many tasks at once – whatever the reason, the act of multitasking never produces the same results as when one works on one task at a time. When your attention is divided, none of the tasks are completed as accurately or efficiently as if you focused and worked on only one task at a time.

For instance, think about driving and talking on a cell phone. One study found that having an accident is four times more likely when using a cell phone while driving. Another study compared reaction times for experienced drivers during a number of tasks, and found that the subjects reacted more slowly to brake lights and stop signs during phone conversations than during other simultaneous tasks.

If you’re on the phone while driving, you can only be doing one task effectively. You are either responding/listening to the telephone conversation or you are driving. Your brain cannot focus on both sources of input at once.

An interesting test currently being conducted by researchers at is looking at multitasking. Take the test to see how your skills stack up.

In addition to multitasking reducing our efficiency and productivity, it has been stated that multitasking can have a negative effect on our happiness. This is especially true where we are exposed to too many choices. However, studies by Mark Carrier, Nancy Cheever, and others, demonstrate that younger generations such as Gen Y and Gen Z are better able to navigate the barrage of information and choose what information deserves their attention.

Regardless of how one justifies multitasking to improve their efficiency, there is no scientific evidence that anyone is able to perform equally effectively on tasks when they are done one at a time or when they are approached all at once. Our brains do not come with multiple core processors and until they do, multitasking will continue to usurp efficiency whenever it is attempted.

Technology and Social Media on a Collusion Course

In the olden days (remember those?), technology didn’t have a place at work other than as a tool to get work done faster. Today, technology in the workplace is much different than it was even a decade ago.

E-mail has coupled with instant messaging, texting has coupled with mobile phones, and other applications like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, HootSuite, Klout, Ping…the list is almost endless…seem to be must haves for businesses and individuals alike. These technological aids invading the workplace no longer allow users to get their work done faster in an organization laden with “tradition.” In fact, the collusion of technology and social media in the business environment is having the opposite effect.

The complexities inside a business need an overhaul and this includes updating policies and procedures to include technology wherever possible. For instance, why use “approved” corporate travel agents when booking online is much faster? Get rid of your travel department (or travel roles) and allow employees to book for themselves. Allowing employees to use technology (like online travel booking) rather than relying on “tried and true” in-house processes can actually help speed up business.

And forget about middle management taking recommendations to upper management for decisions. Organizations should either do away with middle management or trust middle management (and other front line staff) to make decisions on behalf of the organization. The hierarchical structure of old no longer fits the technological revolution. If your organization is trying to fit technology into its deep hierarchy, it’s doing it wrong and the approach is hurting its bottom line. Deep hierarchies suck both efficiency and productivity out of the organization. In fact, it’s probably not an overstatement to say that deep hierarchies suck the life out of organizations.

Employees can only be productive if the bombardment of technology is managed efficiently. Give your employees access to all of the information they need, so they (and only they) can decide what information is important to be effective in their jobs. Essentially, it’s about employers loosening the “controls” on what their employees may (or may not) access. At the end of the day, productivity and results matter more than the steps taken to get there. But if those steps are enabled through technology, then productivity is also improved.

Employers that trust and value their employees will reap the results of improved efficiency and productivity and, ultimately, corporate success. Allow your employees to use a full range of technology to manage their jobs in the best way they see fit. When this happens, your employees will also trust you and the organization’s leadership. The end result is a win-win relationship that enables the company’s success.

Efficiency is in the Toolkit

Social media, instant messaging, and other similar information sharing mechanisms all contribute to an ever-increasing overload of demands for more-better-faster. This information overload isn’t going away; it will only increase. While tools help us navigate the ever-increasing complexity of our work, organizations need to catch up.

Organizations, be it public or private enterprises, typically implement infrastructures, tools, and processes that make it easier for the organization, but not necessarily easy for the individual. This is because most organizations don’t think down to the level of the individual doing the work.

In fairness, many of the productivity tools in older, well established companies worked well when they were first established many years ago. However, to sustain and improve productivity, organizations need to re-examine the tasks required to complete a job and then work backwards from there to determine what tools would be the most efficient.

Here are six considerations (source: Simplicity by Bill Jensen) for improving your employees’ productivity in a technologically fast-paced work environment.

  1. Clarity. Be clear when sharing information with your staff. Clearly communicating what needs to be done allows employees to work smarter and faster. This creates efficiency and productivity in the workplace.
  2. Navigation. Employees must be able to quickly navigate and find whatever it is that they need to complete their tasks. When information is easy to find, efficiency and productivity are increased.
  3. Basics. Being able to get the right information in the right way and in the right amount is a basic tenet of efficiency. If basics are not available in your organization, time is wasted.
  4. Usability. Ensure that “corporate-built stuff” is easy to use. Sometimes “out of the box” products far outweigh the time and effort that organizations spend to custom build. For instance, if it’s taking seven hours to print a report or fifteen minutes to load a program, it’s not usable!
  5. Speed. Products, tools, information – basically anything used by employees to do their job has to be fast enough for them to do their job efficiently. If speed is slow, time is wasted and so are efficiency and productivity.
  6. Time. Employers must be respectful of their employees’ time and use it wisely and effectively. Don’t waste your employees’ time and they won’t waste yours.

Ideally, organizations should examine management tools (e.g., strategic plans), work tools (e.g., software), and collaboration and learning tools (e.g., company intranet) from the employee’s perspective. Do your employees understand the organization’s strategic plan or budgeting and reporting documents? Are databases and laptops enabling or hindering work productivity? Is your intranet an easy-to-navigate learning tool?

These and other considerations, when perfected, will do more to earn your employees’ respect than any monetary rewards. Change your working environment to include a holistic view of each employee’s needs to help them do their best. When you do, your organization’s productivity is improved and so are its profits.


Effective Leaders Enable Productive Organizations

As an effective leader, you know that certain competencies are necessary to your success on the job. Things like building yourself as a whole person (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, creatively), building winning teams, being respectful of others to earn their respect, communicating effectively, inspiring others to build trust … just to name a few. You may also know that proven leadership methods aren’t always the answer in every situation.

Enabling others to be as efficient, effective, and productive as possible is a key tenet of leadership. What is your staff working on? What systems, processes, and tools are they using to accomplish organizational goals? Are these systems, processes, and tools as efficient and effective as possible? These are questions that every leader should be asking, since the leaders’ accountability is (first of all) to their staff to enable organizational productivity.

In addition to looking at overall organizational productivity, leaders need to talk to their staff and customers to understand the big picture. Talking to other leaders or mentors is not going to get you information about what your customers are thinking. And, sometimes, neither will talking with your staff.

Instead of talking with your staff, why not experience what your staff experiences? The show “Undercover Boss” sets a great example for leaders. Putting yourself in your staff’s shoes will teach you more about your organization’s operations than you could ever learn from the company’s policies and procedures manuals or strategic planning sessions.

And what about mentors? Every leader needs two mentors–one mentor half their age and the other twice their age. Currently, a huge number of baby boomers are retiring or semi-retiring. Those that semi-retire continue to stay in the job market in a part-time or entrepreneurial capacity. At the same time, Generation Y (those born between the late 1970s to the early 2000s) is entering the job market for the first-time. The collision of these two generations in the workplace is already seeing a shift in the way information sharing is executed. A decade ago, leaders didn’t need to think about tweets or texts;  now they do. Seek mentors to help you bridge the gap between these two generations.

The bottom line is that leaders must continually evolve and practice their knowledge, values, skills, and behaviours. Taking elements of the tried and true methods such as those discussed above, and modifying them to fit current situations enables good leaders to become effective leaders in productive organizations.