Posted by Fred Zimny
As an operational manager, who works in large-scale organizations, going through massive transitions, one of my guidelines was always my (regular or project) staff in getting things done timely.
Nowadays with an MDA I’m always keen to facilitate my staff. Which implies for me scanning my messages, looking for potential loss of value or possible opportunities and an almost real time response during working hours and offline!
One implication is that to boost speed, it is important to response to key staff right away. Because of the independence of value creation, this increases the effectiveness and efficiency at the organizational or project level. And maybe counterintuitive for you at a first glance: in my experience and opinion it also minimizes my own effort at a personal level over time.
If i get back back to people immediately, those who depend on me won’t absorb my time in other ways – including filling up my inbox, my voicemail, claiming my secretaries or booking (too-long) appointments, copying me on every possible e-mail, scheduling – boring – meetings just to et attention and trying to get me on board or committees to ensure meeting committment.
It was Tom Gilb in the eighties who once claimed “do not attend meetings”.
And from that perspective I acted (better and better supported by technology). I did this always in my belief that an Enterprise program that costs more than 50.000 Euro a day should be delayed by an employee who earns 50.000 Euro per year.David Allen‘s Getting Things Done pointed always to another direction. In spite of his recommendation I kept working with my practice. This post nuances the getting things done approach and focuses also on value creation.
Great to see how theory and operations can connect!
9:12 AM Thursday September 10, 2009 by Ron Ashkenas
I used to be amazed when I would watch my daughter at the computer terminal working on a high school paper, listening to music, eating a snack, and conducting simultaneous instant messaging conversations with a dozen friends around the world. Had her brain been re-wired by the constant use of technology so that she could concentrate on different activities and actually get things done; or should I worry that she was trying to do too many things at once?
Now a study from researchers at Stanford University suggests that
my concerns may have been well-founded. The study conclusions, reported in the Aug. 24 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are unambiguous: “Multitaskers were just lousy at everything,” according to Clifford I. Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford and one of the study’s investigators. Despite starting the research on 100 college students with the hypothesis that multitaskers had some special abilities, the study found that multitaskers were actually quite ineffective at managing information, maintaining attention, and getting results. Compared to study participants who did things one task at a time, they were mediocre.While a single study of 100 students doesn’t prove anything definitively, it does reinforce what many of us have probably suspected – that trying to do too many things at once often means getting none of them done well.
In organizations however, the implication is much more pernicious because individual performance, for better or worse, is multiplied and amplified many times over. If dozens of people are reducing their effectiveness by multitasking, then the organization runs the risk of being tied up in knots.
Anyone who has been through a post-merger integration or a major systems implementation or a large-scale reorganization knows what I’m talking about. The success rate of big projects like these is around 30%. One of the reasons for this dismal track record is that well-meaning project managers try to cram everything in at once so that multiple work streams involving hundreds of people are simultaneously making changes in work processes, reporting relationships, technology usage and more – while everyone also attempts to keep going with their regular jobs. It’s an organizational version of multitasking, or multitasking on steroids. And just like individuals who (according to the Stanford study) reduce their effectiveness by multitasking, so do organizations. If it’s hard for one person to concentrate on a meeting while responding to blackberry messages while eating lunch, imagine what happens when you multiply the distractions by the thousands?
Before you turn in your Blackberry and refuse the next big organizational project however, let me suggest that the alternative to multitasking is not single-tasking. In this day and age, that would be too slow.
Rather the answer is to shift our mindsets from a focus on volume to a focus on value. Instead of checking off all the boxes and trying to get everything done, let’s identify those activities and initiatives that will truly add value. It’s OK not to do certain things, or to do them later. For example, in a recent merger, a team was debating whether to adopt Lotus Notes or Outlook as the standard email system. It’s an interesting discussion, but in the short term it’s not a value-creator for the combined company.We all have choices to make, as individuals and as managers of organizations. What can you do to make sure that those choices are based on value rather than volume?
Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Robert H. Schaffer & Associates, a Stamford, Connecticut consulting firm and the author of the forthcoming book Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done (Harvard Business Press, December, 2009).
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