Erm, that's not Working Smarter

A trend I’m seeing amongst senior leadership in pretty much every organisation I've worked with is this: everyone is busy. And quite quick to declare the fact. And that’s fine — nothing unusual there. 

But what’s also happening (particularly amongst large organisations) is that this busyness is occurring amongst increasing uncertainty, a faster pace of change, and tightening budgets.

And so we hear this: 

“We’re going to have to work smarter, and do more with less.” 

It’s a good message. It makes perfect sense. No one can argue with that logic.

But there’s one major problem with this concept of 'doing more with less' — the doing more bit. Especially if you're a leader (and we all are).

Doing More ≠ Working Smarter

When things are uncertain, people default to the familiar. This is exacerbated when budgets and timelines are tight. 

But simply ‘doing more’ is not the right approach. To truly work smarter, we ought to be asking one question: 

Is this contributing to meaningful progress?

Anything else is irrelevant. 

Of course, to answer that question we need to be savvy with a heap of questions that lie behind it.

Things like: what does meaningful progress look like? what is our purpose? and what is our mission? why? and how might this be evolving? is what we are doing relevant? what do our customers and stakeholders really need? what are they saying? have we asked them? do we really know? and what do we anticipate there needs to be? is our current business model working? how will it work in the near future? where can we add the most value, today and into the future? is there any unnecessary friction between our key activities and value generated, either internally or for our customers and stakeholders? if so, how can we eliminate or mitigate this friction? are there cleverer systems or synergies we can capitalise on? what activities ought we stop doing, what should we continue and what are the few things we should do more of? are there markets we ought to exit? or are there industries we are primed to disrupt? are we at risk of disruption? how would we know? how can we prepare for strategic risk? are there better ways to use our resources and leverage key partnerships? are we using our existing channels and platforms effectively? or should we explore new ones? is our work environment conducive for good work? am I falling prey to any cognitive biases in the decisions I’m making? are we sabotaging our performance or progress in any way? do our policies and procedures support or hinder progress? how can I optimise my daily activities to generate the most value for the organisation? do we have an appropriate diversity of thinking in our decision making processes? are we still learning? am I looking after the mental wellbeing of myself and my team? and how about physical health? and sleep? are we applying creativity and lateral thinking to solve our challenges? do we have a culture that thrives on change, or are we allowing other behaviours to limit this? are we updating/adapting what meaningful progress looks like?

And so on.

Now that is working smarter

And these were just a few questions off the top of my head. I know I've missed some really good and important questions. I know I've also mixed in business strategy with work strategy (because a work strategy that doesn't serve the business strategy is probably not a good strategy).

The point is — this is what working smarter looks like. Exploring questions like this, and leading experiments and change to optimise how we work so that we can progress the things that matter.

But of course, this type of working smarter is much harder to do. The cognitive burden, time and angst required to explore these questions and work smarter methods into our operating strategy requires a level of maturity, robustness, collegiality, vision and creative adaptability in leadership teams. Even then, it's still hard.

It's so much easier to default to the default

And when we default to the default, 'working smarter' — the whole doing more with less thing — simply becomes: "doing more [of the same] with less." 

And what does this look like? Well, it looks like everyone getting busier, rather than getting better. More efficient, possibly — but not more effective. Productive maybe, but not progressive. 

And then, before we know it, everyone has become too busy to think strategically. Even the leaders. We just don't have the time — and so then we make a heap of ill-considered dumb decisions, under the guise of working smarter. #facepalm

Smarter working can only happen if we allow time to explore and experiment.

And ahoy — the very fact you're reading this means that you already onto it ^__^

Here are some ways we can begin to work even smarter.

Create smarter work rituals. Carve out time for daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly rituals that allow you to explore smarter ways to make progress for the things that matter. Approach these new rituals with curiosity and a spirit of experimentation.

  • A daily ritual might be identifying your true priorities for the day (the things that contribute to progress), and tackling them before opening emails and entering the world of reactionary work. You might also want to look at the rituals you have to look after your own health and wellbeing. The things you do every day are often more important than the things you only do once in a while.
  • A weekly ritual might be getting together with the team and reflecting on what you've achieved, what's getting in the way, and how we can work around it. This could be discussed over a beer at the end of the week.
  • A monthly ritual might be connecting with progress in the context of the overarching strategy and the bigger game we're playing. This might look like a long lunch together with your team.
  • A quarterly ritual might be identifying your most important progress-making projects — those critical things that don't fit within the world of business as usual. Form mission teams, make a game of it, and progress these important experiments. This could look like a day off-site with your team.
  • A yearly ritual might look like a strategic summit. You might take your team to an external conference and then spend an extra few days reconnecting with your own strategy. Or you might run your own event and celebrate the wins and learnings of your own people. Or you might go deep in the angst of strategic thinking, harnessing diverse input from your team, updating your game plan to maintain relevance in this changing landscape. Whatever it is, you're going to do something different — something to disrupt the normal pattern of business, and allow time for slow, shared thinking amongst your team.

Notice how none of these rituals are about cramming more busywork into your day? Rather, we're deliberately leaning against the flow of busywork, to carve out time to connect with the things that matter. The work that contributes to progress.

Here are a few more tips for working smarter.

  • Shackle email. Turn off alerts, batch process, and eliminate or mitigate all disruptions that contribute to your sense of 'busyness'. Create your own email charter within your organisation.
  • Lose the 'open door' policy. It's a magnet for distraction — instead, create clear periods in which you are available, walk the floor, and integrate others into shared work rituals. Or, if you work in an open-plan office, find an alternative haven (like a café) where you can get good uninterrupted work done.
  • Beware the things you consume. Physiologically, this means eating well. But psychologically, this means being aware of what information you are exposing yourself to. Information consumes your attention — and as a leader, the quality and quantity of your attention is perhaps the most precious resource you have to offer. So: cull superfluous information. Use services like to curtail and corral excessive email, and tighten up meeting protocols and agendas. "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention" — Herbert Simon
  • Create visibility of progress, and use better communication tools within your team. If you predominantly communicate internally via email — lament! This is the root cause of woe. It's insidious and terrible, and it needs to change. Explore tools like yammer, cotap or slack (brilliant), and resist the urge to default to crappy habits. Don't be half-arsed about these cultural experiments. The organisations that evolve beyond email, and smash down internal barriers for communication, are usually the ones working smarter.
  • Read Manage Your Day-to-Day by 99U. Stop doing busywork, and start doing your best work. (It’s a really good book. Buy the physical copy if you can — the cover finish feels divine).

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