In “Why Is Productivity So Weak? Three Theories” from The New York Times on April 28th, the author’s “depressing scenario” suggests that innovations in technology (such as a computer on every desk) and management techniques (such as outsourcing noncore functions) have been fully implemented across corporate America and will produce no additional productivity improvements. While I don’t think this is entirely true, I suspect we are seeing diminishing returns. But what that means is that we are ready for the next big innovation in workplace productivity!
Corporate America is buried in time-wasting confusion. Clarity is the answer. Here are just a few examples:
1. Talk prevails when it is action that is needed.
When you get on a treadmill, there is no destination. You can always run a little farther. From executives on down, employees speak incessantly using what I call “Treadmill Verbs™.” Verbs like review, communicate, and report. When you engage in treadmill activities, there is no destination. You can always review a little longer, communicate a little more, and report for another ten minutes. There is no way to know when you are done. You can always talk a little longer. And so they do. Employee schedules are filled with reviews, communications, and reports. If you want greater productivity, you need to speak the Language of Outcomes! You need to be clear about your destination and use words that demand specific outcomes.
2. People aren’t as clear as they think.
I attend Board meetings and executive team meetings frequently. As a result, I witness all kinds of focused, earnest discussion by smart, competent people. However, while they may think they are focused, they aren’t clear. While they think they are discussing a single topic, what I usually hear is about five different decisions and two different plans woven into an inefficient mess. If I stop them and enumerate those decisions and plans, it’s like taking off their sunglasses in a tunnel. Suddenly they can see clearly and are able to dispatch each issue, in sequence, and in short order.
3. A huge percentage of the workforce is essentially employed to attend bad meetings.
The average employee spends two days a week in meetings, half of which are a waste of time. That’s 20% effectively employed to attend bad meetings. For executives, the numbers are much higher and the meetings are no more productive. See No. 2. The waste is huge. But meetings aren’t the problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with meetings. Meetings are how we work together. The problem is a lack of clarity to drive those meetings to specific outcomes.
4. Priority lists are so long, there are clearly no priorities.
Clarity creates priorities. Real priorities. The kind that allow you to say no.
5. Employee engagement is not a business outcome.
Most companies have more internally focused programs than externally focused programs. It seems they have forgotten that the point is to create value for which customers are willing to pay. One prime example is employee engagement programs. Employee engagement is not a business outcome. Nor is it a necessary ingredient for success. It’s a symptom. If you want committed employees, help them contribute effectively. Who cares if they have a friend at work or find their supervisor inspiring! If they feel successful, they will be more engaged.
6. Most performance management systems are not improving performance.
Let me be perfectly clear. There are only two categories of employees. Those who can improve and those who are in the wrong job. Most performance management systems are better suited for documenting failures and avoiding lawsuits than helping everyone understand how they can improve or where they should be looking for a job that is a better fit. Without clarity, paperwork, rating systems, and happy talk prevail. With clarity, everyone improves or moves on.
7. With too much to do, most managers choose the only ineffective option.
If you have too much to do, there are five perfectly effective options open to you. You can abandon, postpone, outsource, expect less, or figure out a faster method. There is only one ineffective option. Unfortunately, that’s the one most people choose. It is called wishful thinking and involves not picking one of the effective options. With clarity, you examine those options and make a conscious decision. Without clarity, whim, squeaky wheels, and chance govern what falls through the cracks or is delayed.
The time has come to create clarity.
Clarity of purpose, not just year-end purpose or mission-statement purpose, but daily and hourly purpose, is the first step toward dramatically greater productivity. What will be different when this hour ends? What decision are we making? What is my role? Why are we doing this? How well must we do it? What are we going to stop doing? How will we know when we are done?
Clarity drives high performance and commitment. Focus on clarity and you can accomplish twice as much in half the time.
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com on May 2nd, 2016.