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Productivity @ Work

‘Productivity improvement techniques’ is probably one of the most abused and meaningless phrases you can find floating around today – it ranks right up there with “We strongly condemn this attack…” and “Brown skinned individual suspected of being involved in …”! (OK, OK – I had to throw in those phrases just to prove that this article is current!)

There is an apocryphal story that a new manager decided to eliminate cubicle walls and get everyone to sit together in an open space and improved productivity two-fold. When this manager left for other opportunities a couple of years later, another manager decided to ‘cubiclize’ his office staff and productivity improved again by another two-fold. What happened here?

The question that most managers ask is “How do I improve my team’s productivity?” My opinion in this matter is that this is the wrong question. The right question will be – “How do I define my team’s productivity?” Answering this question will help you determine how to improve the productivity too!

Let us take an example to show what I mean. Consider an assembly line of workers fixing wheels on a ‘widget’. So, their productivity can be measured in terms of “number of wheels fixed on widgets per hour”. Pretty straightforward, right? However, consider a different situation where we are looking at a team of management consultants preparing a business plan for a retail start-up. Do we measure them by the speed with which they come up with the business plan? or do we measure them by the effectiveness of the business plan (and this can be seen only after implementation)? or do we measure them by the size of their final report? Things get complicated here!

Here is my approach towards this whole problem.

I will take a concept out of Taleb’s book – The Black Swan – and say that work can be divided into 2 categories – Scalable and Non-scalable. Scalable activities are where there is no natural cap on the output you can produce while non-scalable activities are where such limitations exist. Examples of non-scalable activities include the grunt work performed by management consultants, widget assembly work defined above, prostitution etc. These are activities that are limited by either time, effort or both that the practitioner can spend on doing those jobs. Scalable activities include activities such as writing thought-provoking blogposts such as this one (ahem!), generating ideas for books, creating music, blue sky thinking (this is what partners in consulting firms call brainstorming activities) etc. These are typically non-linear activities that depend on inspiration, serendipity and most of all, luck. The incremental effort is the same whether the idea is so ground-breaking as in “…building a practical large-scale system which can exploit additional information present in hypertext” or so dumb as Windows ME.

For the non-scalable activities, the approach is pretty straightforward – basically identify ways to increase the speed of the output. There is a lot of material available in the internet to address this, but one of the most useful one that I found is “The Goal” by Eliyahu Goldratt.

Let us look at the more interesting scenario of scalable activities. As I said, scalable activities are non-linear and depend on inspiration, serendipity and a lot of luck. By its very nature, it cannot be controlled or be forced! Hence, the question should be – “How can I create an environment that can increase the possibility of generating better output?”

My thoughts below:

#1 No idea is a bad idea

You never know when an idea might strike you. You may be sleeping, in the bathroom or indulging in activities that cannot be mentioned here as I intend to retain the PG rating of this blog. Also, you never know what may be a good idea or a bad idea. Ideas that were dismissed as bad during Copernicus’ time (Earth revolves around the Sun) are accepted fact today. So, the trick is to note these down immediately so that you don’t lose it to bad memory. With tools such as Evernote being more accessible, this is quite easy. Re-examine these ideas frequently and who knows – one of them may actually change the world!

#2 Expand the boundaries of your social interaction

“Birds of a feather flock together”. In an office party, you will see people from the same school hanging out with each other. If not, you will see people working together in the same project hanging together. Cliques are pretty common in a corporate environment. While cliques have their own usefulness, the problem with this is that people of similar outlooks or backgrounds usually have similar ways of thinking. Do this the next time – when you are looking for ideas to solve a problem, go to someone who doesn’t have a similar background; Go to the office assistant or to your wife or to your kids and ask them for their opinion. You may even be surprised by some insightful ideas!

#3 Question your assumptions

Talking of kids, ever notice that they are the most creative people around? This is because they don’t make a lot of assumptions. They question everything and do not take anything for granted. Sometimes, imagined constraints or ‘sacred cows’ can result in unoriginal ideas. Questioning your own assumptions and testing the boundary conditions can generate very useful ideas. The flip side is also true, where you generate ideas or thoughts based on a lot of assumptions. As someone wisely said, “Assumption is the mother of a screw-up!”.

#4 Daydream!

A lot of time when you are grappling with a problem, you reach a dead-end. The best strategy to adopt in such situations is to stop thinking about the problem. Involve yourself in other activities and then come back to this problem at a later time. In fact, nothing is as therapeutic as just ‘spacing out’. Apparently this is how Kekule came up with the theory of the ring structure for Benzene. So, the next time you see me looking lost, it is me trying to solve an amazingly complex problem.

What are your thoughts on improving productivity? Are there any other methods that have or have not worked for you?

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