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Leaders are Re-thinking Executive Productivity. What About You?

For the past year, productivity & efficiency has been an almost universal business obsession. But, what has the impact been and what have we learned as a result? Well, that it is time to re-think productivity and efficiency in the leader suite.

The No. 1 Business Obsession

It started as a logical response to the post-pandemic tech bubble, but quickly became a global business obsession! Now, all but 1 in 20 organizations (95%) launched a productivity drive, making it the No.1 Go-to Business Strategy of 2022-23 (pitstop research 2023).

This is the year of Productivity & Efficiency, or to be more precise of productivity drives! Yet, in spite of it all, levels of productivity & efficiency stand at just 67%. Thus, the cynical would say that productivity drives have not been very productive. As one of our straight-shooting colleagues puts it: ‘While the talk has been plenty, the actual progress made has been scarce’.

Certainly, there has been a lot of talk about productivity and efficiency. Concepts such as productivity theater, quiet quitting and performance paranoia have dominated the headlines. Clearly, however, talking about productivity and actually driving productivity are two very different things.

Despite the catchphrases and the sound bytes, driving productivity isn’t easy! Indeed, our research suggests that, as a lever of business strategy, performance and value creation, the productivity drive requires a fundamental re-think.

The cynical would say that productivity drives have not been very productive.  

Re-thinking Productivity

From an iPhone factory to a busy Mac Donald's restaurant, modern management techniques have mastered productivity in production environments. However, when it comes to productivity in the leader suite, and knowledge work more generally, we still have a lot to learn.

Productivity drives are ideally suited to plant, process and machinery. That is to areas where measurement, standardization and numbers-driven efficiency immediately apply. But when the approach that works with machines is applied to people the results are less certain.

Does this mean we should forget the idea of productivity and effectiveness in the leader suite? Absolutely not! However, to make it work, an urgent rethink is required. 

Does this mean we should forget the idea of productivity in effectiveness in the leader suite? Absolutely not! However, to make it work, an urgent rethink is required.  

Because How We Work Has Changed!

Without a re-think your productivity initiative could be on shaky ground. That is because the traditional approach to driving productivity is based on an out-dated model of work.

The traditional approach to driving productivity will inevitably struggle because so much about how we work has changed, that includes:

  • The work – e.g. the rise of knowledge work
  • The workplace – e.g. the hybrid working environment
  • The workforce – e.g. the multi-generational workforce (incl. Gen Z)
  • Ways of working – e.g. the demand for increased speed and agility, as well as collaboration and innovation

It is time to Rethink Productivity & Efficiency for a new type of work – the work that is central to success in the knowledge economy:

• Innovative Work• Creative Work• Leadership work • Strategy Work• Business Unusual Work• Vision work • Purpose work • Passion work, etc. 

Re-thinking on 4 Levels

What does it re-thinking productivity for the leader suite actually mean? Well, it means revisiting the results, the process, the diagnosis, and even the underlying premise. It means asking questions such as those in the visual:

Let's start the re-think straight away!

Re-thinking the Results

There is general confusion about how to measure or even define leader productivity or efficiency. For example: 

  • Driving productivity & efficiency requires more than cost or headcount reduction. Expecting people to do more with less doesn't necessarily address the root causes of productivity and efficiency.
  • Productivity & efficiency may be only a small part of leader performance & knowledge work (where factors such as innovation, quality and strategic thinking are required)
  • Activity & output related metrics can be misleading, even dangerous. This is a key challenge around the use of productivity tracking tools.
  • The required result is often to appease shareholders and investors, rather than to fundamentally move the dial on performance.

There may be areas of your business where production line levels of standardization and efficiency are possible, but there are other areas where this is neither possible, or desirable. So in defining the required results we must also consider factors such as quality, innovation, creativity and so on.

Many of the organizations in our research implemented productivity drives despite enjoying strong financial performance, some were even enjoying their best year yet. For them, factors such as market dominance and competitive strength clearly outweighed the importance of leader productivity and efficiency, at least when it comes to short-term financial performance. For these organizations outside the technology space, implementing a productivity drive was considered a prudent step, rather than a financial imperative.


Re-thinking the Process

Productivity drives are often reactive, driven by short term financial expediency, rather than business logic or strategy. This can result in the following contradictions:

• The organization's professed commitment to its people is shown to be hollow.1 

• Short-term decisions that have hidden long-term costs.

• The focus is on cost and efficiency, rather than growth and innovation.

• Despite the talk of engagement, bureaucratic drives can damage commitment & trust. 

• Top-down initiatives result in decisions being made by those who are far removed from the reality of the work. 

Too often productivity drives are over-hyped, overly simplistic and, even ill-conceived. Indeed, in their attempts to drive productivity, many leaders have been going down a rabbit hole

‘The prevailing efficiency ethos and an addiction to planning and measurement are too embedded… to let people think for themselves. …[Senior leadership] cling[s] to the ancient reassurance of scientific management'.

Margaret Heffernan2).

The executive productivity paradox is this: People get busier and busier, but productivity fails to budge.  Most of the ambitious executives we work with are operating at 90%, 100 or 110% in terms of busyness. Yet, they put productivity and efficiency at 67%!


Re-thinking the Diagnosis

Despite its importance, there is typically a failure to systematically analyze the problem / opportunity regarding productivity & efficiency. This can result in simplistic solutions that address the symptoms rather than the root cause(s). This is evident in the following:

  • ‘Finger in the air' guesswork & a lack of meaningful data
  • Sweeping generalizations that that fail to distinguish between different types of work or different work environments. For example, applying data gathered in a data processing, or call center environment to the leader suite.
  • Emotive language such as Alphabets ‘there will be blood on the streets'3 and a negative or fear-based dialog
  • Projecting hybrid working (WFH/RTO) frustrations onto the problem, with high levels of performance paranoia.4

Most productivity drives fail to address the systemic factors involved or the reality of working in a large organization. To re-think productivity in the modern work environment requires systematically analyzing the factors that are really draining productivity.  These include competing projects and priorities, stakeholder misalignment, poor internal collaboration, etc.

Productivity and efficiency drives typically point the finger at the worker. But, a systematic analysis of performance is key to optimizing the way that groups and teams work. This includes ensuring that Right People are in the Right Roles, Doing the Right Work, working together in the Right Way, with the Right Resources & the Right Rewards to achieve the Right Results. This 7Rs formula is the kind of practical, actionable pathway to greater productivity & efficiency that most productivity drives miss. Here is how one COO put it:

‘We have been chasing a 5% reduction in costs / improvement in efficiency, when the pitstop data suggests that 45% of the time we are doing the wrong work and 32% of the time we are not in (or clear about) the right roles. Most astonishing of all, 31% of the time there isn't clarity regarding the right result!'

To re-think productivity requires systematically analyzing the factors that are really draining leader productivity (competing projects & priorities, stakeholder misalignment, poor internal collaboration, etc.) 


Re-thinking the Premise

‘Productivity Drive’ – the words make perfect sense when it comes to the efficiency of process, plant and equipment. However, any effort that is based on driving people will only enjoy limited success

The traditional productivity drive is more a tool of management, than leadership. The real leadership challenge or opportunity is to unlock the full potential of the knowledge worker or leader. However, that requires a very different approach and mindset too.

The primary focus is on the cost of the organization of waste and inefficiency. Yet, there is an equally important, but largely hidden cost. It is measured in terms of lost time, energy and frustration and is borne by all those who work within the organization. Indeed, the failure to enable people to perform at their best has an important societal and human cost.

‘We all laugh, a bit nervously, at jokes about the inherent insanity and wastefulness of life in a modern corporation. I’m here to tell you that it shouldn’t be funny. It should be shameful. We should mourn the lives and potential we’re wasting.'

Jeff Sutherland5

People want to be productive and efficient at their work. The workload that they are carrying requires it. Yet, they continuously craft ambitious to-do lists only to find themselves carrying over tasks from week to week and from one quarter to the next. They want to get on top of, and stay on top of, their work, without recourse to late hours and weekend working. They deserve to end their working week believing feeling that they have got a lot done. This is denied to those leaders that work in an environment that hinders productivity and efficiency.

Executives are expected to do more with less resources. They're working longer and longer hours, meanwhile the inherent inefficiencies within the environment in which they must operate are left addressed.

Executives are working longer and longer hours, meanwhile the inherent inefficiencies within the environment in which they must operate are left addressed.  

Conclusions

This is the year of Productivity & Efficiency, or to be more precise of productivity drives! Yet, in spite of it all, levels of productivity & efficiency stand at just 67%. Thus, the cynical would say that productivity drives have not been very productive.

Modern management techniques have mastered productivity in production environments. However, when it comes to productivity in the leader suite, and knowledge work more generally, we still have a lot to learn.

The traditional approach to driving productivity will inevitably struggle because so much about how we work.

Does this mean we should forget the idea of productivity and effectiveness in the leader suite? Absolutely not! However, to make it work, an urgent rethink is required. 

A re-think means revisiting the results, the process, the diagnosis, and even the underlying premise of productivity and efficiency drives. It means asking questions such as:

Q: What are the expected results?

Q: What is the nature of the problem/opp.?

Q: What is successful implementation?

Q: What assumptions are being made?

To re-think productivity in the modern work environment requires systematically analyzing the factors that are really draining productivity (competing projects & priorities, stakeholder misalignment, poor internal collaboration, etc.)

We need a broader definition of productivity and efficiency – a bigger picture view of leader/knowledge worker performance and potential, as well as a new set of tools to unlock it. Moreover, we need to make it something that is done with, rather than done to leaders and benefits (not just organizations) by creating an environment where they can perform at their best.

We need to embrace the complexity of working within large organizations and the challenges presented as organizations move from the traditional hierarchical structure to a flatter more horizontal and across functional approach. This new way of working is essential to greater speed, agility, collaboration and innovation in a fast-changing and increasingly competitive world.




SOLUTIONS & SERVICES: Here are some of the ways that our research & insights are put to work by our clients:





  1. How an organization drives productivity reveals (more than any words) its true commitment to people and talent. []
  2. “Uncharted: How to Map the Future” by Margaret Heffernan, Simon & Schuster UK (20 Feb. 2020 []
  3. These remarks from Google/Alphabet leadership were widely reported in the media in August 2022 see: https://nypost.com/2022/08/12/google-execs-threaten-workers-with-layoffs-there-will-be-blood-on-the-streets/ []
  4. This performance paranoia may actually be a good thing, indeed our data points to the danger of taking a rosy view of performance or engagement. []
  5. Jeff Sutherland, ‘Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time', Currency 2014. []

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