It’s funny how the last few years have really focused my attention on the issues and impediments to getting things done in a way that exceeds even normal standards for new parents.
Every new parent goes through a piece of this experience as you learn how important it is to get things done in the few seconds between the responsibilities of being a spouse and a parent. Some of us even make the decision to be in business for ourselves at the same time. And that’s an odd expression too, now that I think about it because the reason successful people are successful in business is rarely out of service to themselves, contrary to popular media, but always by being of service to others.
It’s rarely because we’re all greedy bastards looking to steal, sneak, claw and scrape every penny from unsuspecting kind and gentle clients; usually it’s to make sure our family has what it needs to be secure, healthy, and provided for, and to make up for all the precious moments every working parent and spouse miss because they have to make a living, and that takes more than a paycheque- it takes a level of success beyond that.
When a baby enters your life, your world changes so that the sleep you used to give up to socialize with your friends is spent instead responding to the cries and needs of your family. On top of that you’ll find that the only time you have to be productive is when everyone else is asleep so you learn to get by on less.
You learn that when you have a free moment during the day, it had better be productive. It can even be resting, as long as it is productive rest; rest that actually is restful is one of the most productive things you can do sometimes as it allows you to give more when you really need it.
You learn who your friends really are, and who you wouldn’t trust with your newborn child alone in a room. It’s surprising what that does to your idea of who makes the grade as a friend and who conveniently becomes an acquaintance and loses the speed dial access to your life.
That’s just a taste of what every parent learns about productivity with a new baby in the house. Now with a toddler it’s a whole new ball game with additional physical demands trying to keep up with a miniature version of yourself keeping you on your toes. So why did I say I learned more than the average parent about the secrets of being highly productive? Good question, so here’s the answer.
I teach business skills to companies, governments, non-profits, academics and professionals including a variety of courses on project management. One course on project management I taught 16 times last year had a profound impact on my understanding of exactly what the impact of our management and entrepreneurial decisions is on our businesses and our lives. Here is why:
I taught the course live on site in 8 cases and live online in the other 8. In each case the students asked the same question, namely, “Project management theory sounds great but we keep getting tasked with so many tasks on top of the projects we’re doing that we can never get anything done. Do you have any suggestions about what we can do to handle those extra tasks so we can focus on the project at hand?”
“What percentage of these extra tasks would normally have fallen under either your education and skill set or your original job description, and what percentage would you say falls into that category called ‘other duties’?” I asked each time.
Inevitably the answer was that between 30-80% of the extra tasks they got were outside their skill sets and not on their list of primary duties for the jobs that they were hired for in the first place. This meant that they were all being tasked with work that they were unskilled and functionally incompetent at. Not that they weren’t professionals, but someone who is a doctor can be as smart as they want; I still don’t want them playing architect for my next office tower project. And yet, that’s really what every one of the 16 companies were doing effectively. They had project managers doing data entry, they had accountants doing customer satisfaction surveys, they had programmers trying to figure out accounting discrepancies in Excel… you name it, if it could be put in the column of ‘other duties’ then it was probably there already for one of those employees.
The idea behind it is the idea that it is more efficient to have the task assigned to anybody who can spend some time working on it instead of waiting for the expert to get around to it. I call this the ‘Warm Body Approach to Entrepreneurial Management.’ If you have a task and you have a warm body, then you know each task is getting immediate attention.
What you’re not getting is a solution, though. You’re occupying a skilled person with a task they are unskilled at doing so that when the next task comes up that they would be skilled at doing, they will no longer be the relevant available warm body and you’ll next have to assign a new warm body of unskilled labor to handle that issue, and so on. Worse than not getting a solution, you’re actually getting a continuously compounding problem instead, ensuring that few issues if ever actually get resolved by anyone who knows what the heck they are doing.
I had each of the classes do an experiment to verify whether this was a big deal or not. In each class I asked them to wait and when they got assigned a task they were unsuited for they should do the task and record how long the task took and what impediments they ran into in doing the task. The next time a similar task was assigned they were to find someone else on their team and trade tasks with them for a task they were better at instead and then record what impediments they ran into and how long the second task took when handled by someone who knew how to do them properly.
The results were awe inspiring.
The minimum improvement in any one organization was an 800% productivity increase, the median average gain was over 2500% and the highest increase was over 3250% productivity improvement gained by having the person with the right skills matched with the task they were best suited for.
Remember, the minimum result in this study was an 800% improvement.
That means that every company was paying at least 8 times as much to get the same work done that they could have spent if instead they’d had the right person doing the job in the first place, someone they already had on staff for precisely that kind of work.
And this is a disease that is affecting virtually every employee in each of those organizations, which means their entire work force is taking at least 8 times as long to do things as it could and that in periods of crisis those numbers will spike rather than accommodate the stress. In banking or financial terms it means every one of those companies would fail a stress test if it were administered tomorrow. Every single one of them would fail, and they would fail spectacularly.
There are so many other aspects of business processes and structure that impact productivity including geography and environment, staff on-boarding and off-boarding planning, employee engagement levels, employee vacation/decompression policies, company lessons learned program effectiveness, team construction and management, and too many more to go into right here, but there is one thing that separates those who have mastered the ultimate productivity skills from those who haven’t- the willingness to try, fail, and keep trying, day after day, failure after failure, learning from each one until success inevitably is yours.
It’s a lesson that is easy to say, but brutally difficult to accept in your heart, especially when the consequences are things like feeling like you disappointed your child because you weren’t able to spend enough time with them today, or disappointing a client because you’re behind on their project because another project just blew up on you and ate up all your time over the weekend.
It’s brutal when you have paid extreme attention to detail and you find that you missed two letters in a product name that make the difference between your project being successful and your project going over budget, over time, and dramatically over scope.
It’s brutal when your vision of your projects is so clear and your motivation is so strong but those around you don’t have the same natural incentive to get things done on time or on budget, but they are happy to spend your time and out of your wallet on things that could have been accomplished without spending more of either.
It’s brutal when the eyes of your toddler or your wife look at you begging for a kind word and a night off and because your suppliers wasted your time you now have 2 more weeks of overtimes and overnights making up for their mistakes.
It’s brutal when you are so tired that your eyes close on their own and you keep typing because you can’t afford to stop and lose the few hours remaining to work before daylight comes and the world needs you to take on the role of working-stay-at-home-parent again.
The reality is we are all human. We all have limits. Our job is to challenge those limits, circumvent those limits, resolve those limits by identifying new ways to do what needs to be done so that those limits no longer apply and then to respect the limits we cannot change, but to never give up trying to find and use better ways to do what we are doing.
As a result we WILL fail. We WILL fall down. We WILL be beaten, battered, and bruised.
The secret to being truly productive, my friends? It’s to get back up anyway.
Rivers carve through mountains not because they blast through them on the first splash but because no matter how often they are turned aside, blocked, or impeded, the river keeps pushing to where it needs to go until one day it finally gets there. It may start as a drip or even just a seeping through the layers of stone, but eventually it turns into a mighty raging river that no mountain can resist.
That first while of feeling like an impeded drip? Yeah, it sucks. But it’s the only way to start the journey to being the mighty river we know we need to and deserve to be.
Today I definitely feel like a drip, but I can start to see some huge cracks in the rocks I’m pushing through. I still have a lot of work to do, but one drip at a time I’m carving my way through the mountain to a whole new world on the other side.
Feel like being a drop with me?
Chris Cayer is an author, a competitive intelligence specialist, Founder of the Business Speakers Radio Network, COO of Reyactive LLC, and CEO of Advantage Business Club, Inc.