From Busy to Productive: A Series on Rethinking Your Work Environment

Balloon over a maze

Several years ago, I was meeting with my CIO and mentor, explaining how crazy busy we were. She respectfully listened and then asked me one simple question: “Are you busy or productive?” This shook my world. I had never really distilled it to that simple essence. All I could say was, “That’s a great question, I don’t really know.” I then spent the next week observing my teams and concluded we were just busy.

How did I come to this conclusion? I looked around and saw the following:

  • The volume of meetings was staggering. Worse yet, the value and outcome of these meetings was minimal
  • Project deadlines were slipping
  • Morale was plummeting
  • There was a frenetic atmosphere that was palpable
  • Most notably, the entire organization was “interrupt-driven”

When I stepped back and took an honest look at this laundry list of symptoms, I realized our business had devolved into “busyness.”

I’m betting at least some of these symptoms hit home with you as well? So, why do we all fall into these patterns? The number one reason I hear from my executive clients is they just don’t have enough time. Channeling my former CIO and mentor, I bet you can predict what I ask them. . . “Is your time spent being busy or productive?” More times than not, a light bulb flashes and my clients sheepishly confess, “We’re busy. So . . . how do we transform to become productive?”

This introductory post will review the symptoms of “busyness” and summarize four things you can do to transcend this state to become productive. Across follow-up blog posts, I will explore each of these four constructs in greater detail.

Before we explore solutions, let’s just quickly review some additional symptoms to “busyness:” To play off the words of comedian, Jeff Foxworthy, you may be in “busyness” mode if you . . .

  • Employ “Band-Aid Fixes” to chronic IT issues
  • Are perpetually in fire-fighting mode
  • Focus on goals that provide little value
  • Find your teams embroiled in mind-numbing “analysis paralysis”
  • Feel like you are always in a reactive decision-making mode
  • Experience recurring problems
  • Experience high levels of staff conflict and “shame and blame” behavior
  • Are reading this bullet point for the fifth time because somebody is IM’ing you, calling you, or standing in your office right now

All kidding aside, as a leader, it is your job to recognize these symptoms and transform your work environment, and that of your team, into one that is productive.

In this series of articles, we will dive into each of our four integral ways that will make your environment more productive:

1. Root Cause Analysis: You wake up with a cough, but why go the doctor? The doctor just takes way too much time, effort, and money. Instead, you take some Dayquil and hope it goes away. Three weeks later you are bedridden with bronchitis from that pesky little cough, and all because you didn’t take the time to figure out the root cause of your symptoms. In IT, it is no different. Root cause analysis is a concept that needs to be engrained into how you operate in order to eliminate chronic problems and the cumulative effects of patching “Band-aids” that drive so much of our busy behavioral patterns.

2. Quantifiable Metrics: If you don’t know how to measure success, how do you know when you are achieving it? Metrics provide you with a baseline and context to assess the business value of your work. In the absence of metrics, it’s easy to get distracted by time consuming “shiny pennies” that yield little or no business value. Is there a better definition for “busyness” than this?

3. Focus: We need to stop hiding behind the excuse that there’s not enough time. It’s simply not true. It’s not that people don’t have enough time to get their work done; it’s that they lack focus because they are bombarded with distractions. Everybody is busy; everybody wants to do more with less. As a leader, it is your job to prioritize activities and to get rid of those distractions and provide an environment where your team can focus on their work. In the full blog post for Focus, I’ll provide a nice team building exercise to drive home this point.

4. Make Decisions: You’re a leader. It’s your entire job to make educated decisions. It’s too easy to get stuck into analysis paralysis and become reactive. Don’t let that happen. Definitely take the time to educate yourself. But, learn to do that with efficacy. Most importantly, stick with your decisions. We’ve all worked for that person who makes a decision, then someone walks into their office and they change it. We call those people “last person in their ear” leaders. Don’t be that person; constantly changing your mind. Nobody likes it when they do a bunch of work, have their boss change their mind, do more work for the new direction…and rinse and repeat. Don’t be that executive, it’s a waste of everybody’s time and is in no way productive.

So, there are the four major actions you can take to start to convert your “busyness” in to a productive business. Keep an eye out for this series and the detailed discussions.