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Productivity is not Performance


With May 1 being Worker's Day locally, I was struck by Ryan Wong's recent article about productivity "theatre," where we do things to appear busy, rather than actually be productive. This is likely driven by our organization's need to measure our contribution, but we end up feeling controlled and indulging in passive-aggressive behaviour. Common examples might be avoidance of unpleasant tasks, procrastination or delays, withholding of support and influence, or "low-bar" standards, where we do "just enough" to appease the powers-that-be. "Presenteeism" is possibly in the mix, too - being present physically, but not emotionally or psychologically engaged.


1. Focus: Wong notes that the solution to this challenge isn’t a technological one, such as new software; rather, it requires a change of culture - a shift in emphasis, so to speak. Carolyn Taylor, a culture-change specialist, defined culture as "patterns of behaviour that are encouraged, discouraged, or tolerated over time.” High-performing organizations encourage collaboration (harmony), efficiency (lean and agile) and engagement (vigour, absorption and dedication). They also don't tolerate more than occasional deviations from this. Purpose lies at the heart of focus - differentiating background and foreground. Knowing why we are present (where value and meaning truly lie), who we are (the brand and reputation we gladly embrace) and what we are trying to achieve is critical.


2. Tracking: Technologically, some systems need to change, and people analytics are good, if we track outcomes. Many firms are still tracking whether videos have been watched on the LMS, screens are active in the lab or meetings are attended. Would it not be more valuable to know what was done with that knowledge, time and activity? If productivity starts with value, where is the value in our tasks, roles, meetings and interactions? If we were paid by commission, which things would we reward? Law firms often measure productivity of associates in ten 6-minute increments. If so, then a water-cooler chat is wasting 6 minutes of billable time. But adopting a "rainmaking" philosophy makes the desired revenue for the year clear and achievable in many ways. If associates are allowed to play golf or host a hackathon or game-jam to attract customers, they may achieve the target within 3 months. Each person given autonomy in this way - based on strengths, knowledge, interest and network - contributes to the clear outcomes. Likewise, agenda items and activities - working hard - are not elevated above the strategy and vision of the team. High effort may not generate results, landing us in a type of cul-de-sac or leading us to a cliff-edge, according to Seth Godin.


3. Time and effort: a redesign of work and workplaces is under way, since effort and value do not always go together. Let's address the four-day workweek. There are many benefits to having an extra day as a well-being and lifestyle benefit, indeed: allocated work-days appear to be more fruitful, since we tend to be more rested and have more motivation and urgency to complete tasks. Yet our work culture determines our roles and tasks and our clients' expectations and culture determine our deadlines. My wife is a medical professional. While software developers might easily work from home, choose their hours and measure outcomes by effective code written, it's different to - under pressure - serving irate customers admitted to a hospital, ensuring the correct medication dosage is given to each patient and preparing chemotherapy drugs in a biological safety cabinet. People can't die from bad code, I hope. In some contexts, then, fewer hours are not as valuable as sufficient skillful hands, great supplier negotiations and adaptive systems. If you find the value, you'll unlock the productivity.


4. Worker compensation: Ruberton, Gladstone & Lyubomirsky (2016) found that "cash on hand" (as seen in our bank account) was a better predictor of happiness than the amount that people were paid. Furthermore, money does motivate us, but only up to a certain level. Beyond that amount, $1000 would not improve performance. Truth be told, there's another issue: the ratio of CEO-to-typical-worker compensation was 21:1 in 1965. It is now more than 1000% higher, reaching 351:1 in some instances. While "market-related" salaries are important to attract good talent, something has to give. In South Africa, the Apartheid system provided better education and opportunities to some - those of a pale complexion. I received a better education than my friends Motse and Deshun. It wasn't fair (and there is a role for the previously-privileged to play in making a difference now). That system created an abundance of cheap labour, and still today the average income of an employed South African is only around $700 per month. If we are to thrive, executives like me need to address the ratios that are oppressive and invest in workplaces that are truly sustainable for all involved.


Wouldn't you like to be part of dynamic teams that bring out the best in you, do exciting, impactful work and receive appropriate recognition and reward for doing so? This kind of environment stimulates productivity and creativity. It is created by our behaviour and the stories we tell each other about what will or won't work, who is easy to work with and whether we feel safe, respected, supported and trusted. We get the culture we tolerate...or encourage. If it's safe to speak up, bring our network and our whole self, we will thrive.


And our colleagues, customers and communities will know the difference.


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