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Book Review-Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours

My wife passed along an article to me that Bob Pozen wrote for the Institute for Healthcare Improvement titled “What’s the secret to running effective meetings?” I was intrigued because I had recently written a chapter “Removing Innovation Friction by Improving Meetings” for the Ark Group book Smarter Innovation: Using Interactive Processes to Drive Better Business Results. That intrigue was enough to pick up his book Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours.

Eliminating Waste

Lean manufacturing seeks to strip out of the process anything that doesn’t add value. That intuitively makes sense. If it’s not adding to the product quality or the customer experience, why do it? A friend of mine was telling me about a film school he was running and as a part of that he had several groups. One of the groups was meticulously cataloging shots and aligning the audio with them. They produced a library of shots with great audio. Unfortunately, they did this prior to deciding what shots they wanted to use. As a result they were way behind.

In video production you shoot lots of footage that you think you may use but that you don’t know whether you’ll use or not until you put it all together. By simply filtering first to the shots they would definitely use (or probably use) they could have saved precious hours working on their project.

Pozen speaks about how many groups waste days or weeks at the beginning of a knowledge project gathering information without a clear sense of the key question (or questions) to be answered. Knowing what you’re going to use or potentially use can dramatically reduce your effort.

In another situation I was involved with a clinical study with a very long survey form. The participants were dealing with their health and everyone knew how serious their health condition was so they complied with the pages of survey every six months, however, there were numerous questions on the survey that were never analyzed at all. We failed the step of evaluating how we would – or could potentially – use the results of the data we were collecting.

Put Out the Fire

Thinking Time

Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People implored us to put first things first. He exposed that there are two dimensions to evaluate things on. First, is its urgency – the dimension that most folks particularly multitaskers are suckers for. The second dimension is importance. That is what is going to drive the business or your world forward. If you spend all your time working on the urgent – even the irrelevant urgent – you’ll never have time to work on the important but not urgent. Take a look at the four quadrants formed by these two dimensions:

Few would say that they’re working on things in quadrant four. However, most would quietly admit they’re stuck in quadrant three with the urgent but trivial. The goal is to get to quadrant one with the important and urgent – long enough to get into quadrant two where things are important but not necessarily urgent.

Getting to this place requires the discipline to ignore things in quadrants three and four – or to delegate them. It means having the time to consider your strategies so that you can really understand what is and isn’t important. It’s time to think and time to clarify.

Notice the contrast that this time is time to clarify importance – not to gather reams of data that you may – or may not need. The only data that you should be collecting when you’re trying to determine a strategy – when you’re trying to determine what is important to your long term success – is the data you need to be able to determine the strategy. Don’t spend time tracking down details you won’t need if you decide to go another direction.

Wanted: Productivity Killer Perfectionism

There’s a certain allure to the idea of being perfect. There are many books about marketing including Platform and Demand that in their own way extol the virtues of trying to be perfect. They speak about not cutting corners. They talk about making sure that you have enough time to do things “right.” However, the trick is in defining what “right” is. Ultimately perfectionism locks you into a world where you’re invariably doing things that no one will notice or care about. Perfectionism is often about Must-be-seen-as (See Anatomy of Peace) and not about the work you’re actually doing.

I’m a master of overkill. From a doggie air-lock dual door system for letting the dogs in and out of my office while minimizing heat loss to the 1/10th inch stainless steel stair noses that are on my steps so they won’t get scuffed or marred. I put in valves that shouldn’t be necessary – including the one that separates the feed to my office that allowed me to deal with a brass fitting underground failing and causing a huge water leak.

I’ve got a tendency towards perfectionism and yet there are still times when I can find solutions that work even when they’re not perfect. My desks, for instance, are made of file cabinets door frames and glass. They’re nice and functional but not necessarily perfect.

Jim Collins probably expresses the balance in Good to Great. The heart of the matter is the balance between being unwavering at your quest for perfection and the awareness that it may not be necessary.

Phases of Writing

When I’m writing a blog post there are three relatively distinct phases. In the first phase, I’m collecting the probable points that I want to make. It is headings or important quotes that I rapidly collect. Immediately following this I start writing those chunks out. I sometimes write them in a different order than I’ve put on the page and often I’ll rearrange the chunks as I’m trying to find a flow that works better. Finally, once all the writing has been done I’ll go back through and reread the whole post to make sure that it ties back together. Pozen mentioned that Ronald Kellog demonstrated that the three phases of writing – planning, translating, and revision – all compete for the same resources in the brain. The solution is simply to split the phases of writing into three blocks.

This idea can be extended to phases of meetings, or phases of other work. There’s a phase when you’re trying to get clarity on what you’re doing and there’s a phase when you’re doing the “real work” and finally a phase to review what you’ve done. Meetings can be well structured to follow this three point breakdown.

Not a Minute Wasted

There was a time while I was going to high school where I was literally going to high school for a half a day (to complete the required credit hours) and working 20 hours a week and taking 10 credit hours at the local community college. I can remember that time. It was hard work but I remember how it crystalized how to get things done. I’d bring in my college business communication homework and I’d do it in my debate class at high school. There wasn’t a minute wasted.

Ends and Means

In our industrialized world we’ve become obsessed with clock watching. We punch time clocks. We stare longingly across the hall at the clock waiting until we can punch out and go home. We’ve become focused on the 40 hour the work week and along the way we’ve forgotten to get anything done. We’ve forgotten about the lack of productivity during those 40 hours.

The real end, our real desire in business, is to get things done. More importantly we want to get things done that lead the business towards its goals – both financial and otherwise. I was taking a tour of a GM plant in Saginaw, Michigan while I was in school. I noticed some of the workers sitting beside their lines reading the newspaper. It was the oddest thing. I expected that the managers would be angry at the workers who were “clearly” not tending to their work. Maybe they were on break.

Our escort kindly explained that those were the most valuable workers in the plant. He further explained that when they were sitting idly by the line, it was running smoothly and cars were being produced. When they were working the line was stopped and no cars were being made. The managers were quite happy that the workers were able to keep their machines running without much intervention.

That’s real awareness of the ends desired – car production vs. the means – workers actually “working.”

Speaking in Public

Jerry Seinfeld once said “to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” I can’t count the number of people – including a number of folks on the speaking circuit – who have said to me that they could never do standup comedy. (See I am a Comedian) While I freely admit in the post that it’s a scary proposition, I can’t say that getting up in front of a group to speak is a fear – or even a concern – any longer. I’ve been doing it for years and so it’s just a part of the business. Though Mark Twain said “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.” Hopefully you’ll allow that I disagree with the quote. However, I know through my coaching of others that it can be a scary place.

I think that there are two things that I can offer about speaking in front of others. First, Mark Twain’s quote is accurate for most of the population. If you’re scared of public speaking so is the audience. So my recommendation is to humbly acknowledge – but do not dwell – on it. Something as simple as “No matter how many times that I do this I still get nervous in front of a group so do you mind if I ask if any of you have any rotten tomatoes with you?” It acknowledges the fear and makes light of it. You’ve instantly connected with your audience and instead of it being you vs. them, it’s that you’re all taking a journey together.

The second tip is to play a modified game of “worst case scenario.” I say modified because the way some people play this game we’re all going to be flung into a black hole and die. That’s not exactly realistic or probable. To play worst case scenario you look for the worst possible case. For instance, it might be that they’ll throw tomatoes at you – though this is unlikely. So the worst case is you’ll get some free fruit – a bit bruised – but free. You could say that you’ll be fired. However, the likelihood of being fired for speaking poorly one time is pretty remote too. It’s more likely you’ll get some speaking training. So what’s the worst thing that can happen? (I’ll refrain from telling you the story of being rushed by a patron while on the comedy stage.)

The Ethics of Business

Do you believe that your organization is ethical? In 2011 only one in ten employees said they felt like their organizations were ethical. Part of the problem with this is that it allows for the least common denominator. If you have one manager in your organization who you feel is unethical you’re likely to say that the organization isn’t ethical. However, the other part of this alarming statistic is the relatively little weight that we offer to maintaining our ethical boundaries. Few people spend time understanding their values (See Who Am I) to know what their ethics are. And there’s no guarantee that your values and boundaries are the same as mine – so I may still not believe you are ethical.

Ethics are tricky business but having your team believe that the leaders are ethical has a real impact on employee satisfaction and retention so seeking to develop a sense of internal ethics can pay dividends in lower employee retention costs.

Plenty of Praise

Charles Schwab said “Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” Frederick Herzberg in his classic Harvard Business Review article “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees” ranks recognition as second only to achievement. We all want to feel like we’re good at what we do. (See mastery in Drive.) Extreme Productivity suggests that one way to productivity is through praising your subordinates even going to such lengths as sending mail to the parents of top executive’s parents thanking them for raising such amazing children.

Encourage Criticism

While the staple food for subordinates may be praise, the food that leaders need most is criticism. While it may seem like an opposite response from praise, one of the things that leaders don’t get enough of is constructive criticism and questioning. All too often subordinates are unable to overcome the power differential to ask their leader whether the path that is being marched down is the right path – or whether there are factors the leader may not have considered. Criticism is never something that people truly enjoy all the time. Leaders will invariably send the wrong message by wincing at some scathing criticism. They’ll invariably reinforce the cultural norms of not speaking up – unless they’re conscious about it.

While speaking with a friend he mentioned that his manager had recently had a change of attitude and had started asking about what she could do to improve things. When my friend started gently moving down this path the manager bristled and started to defend the situation and the decisions. The result was that my friend decided that it wasn’t worth providing constructive criticism because it wouldn’t be received well. As a result he’s quietly fulfilling his duties to the best of his ability and waiting for a better opportunity to come along. The opportunity that was created for him to share was too quickly shutdown and it’s unlikely he’ll open up again – to that manager.

Cows Path

Pozen ends Extreme Productivity by admitting that he never had a grand plan for his career. He worked hard. He made decisions that left his options open. He learned. For the most part in his career he went where the winds lead him. Leaving your options open is a very lean manufacturing thing to do. The idea of reversible decisions is an important component to lean. However, in an age where celebrities are quite willing to share that they’ve had a singular focus for their lives the idea that someone who has a measure of notoriety admits to just trying to make each day better is a refreshing change. In my career I’ve found that I ended up where I was based more on chance than intention.

While I don’t think that by reading Extreme Productivity you’ll instantly become as successful as Pozen, I do believe that you have to pour into yourself and that by reading Extreme Productivity will be doing that. It’s an opportunity to pick up a few new tricks, a new perspective, and maybe a few extra minutes to enjoy life.

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