Work transformed.™

The Productivity Prison

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    Slow down to speed up

    Are you one of those leaders who’s always pressuring your team — and yourself — to get things done faster? You’re not alone.

    The “time is money” philosophy at the heart of this mindset is also the heart of the industrial age management philosophy on which most traditional business “best practices” are based.  If this is your management modus operandi, you’re probably just as convinced that faster is better as you are exhausted by the constant push to get more done in less time. Thankfully, recent research is casting doubt on how productive this management strategy actually is.

    Welcome to part five in our eight-part series on mindsets for workplace transformation. In earlier installments, we covered shifts from status to service, profit to purpose and control to creativity. In this one, we tackle one of the biggest myths in the business world: that productivity requires us to go fast.

    For those speed demon leaders already starting to skim this article so they can get back to cracking the whip on their team to get sh** done, here’s the bottom line:

    People under time pressure don’t think faster. They just think less.

    A study by Teresa Amabile, Director of Research at Harvard Business School, shows that, despite participants reporting that they feel more creative on time-pressured days, the reality was that they showed less evidence of creative thinking. Remember the saying that “necessity is the mother of invention”? Looks like it’s not.  While people do get more done when they are under extreme time pressure to meet deadlines, this effect is at least partially due to working longer hours. It is also most prominent in roles where the work required involves doing things that are familiar and already within the scope of the employees involved. When it comes to tasks that require new solutions, problem-solving and creativity, time pressure is counterproductive.

    Richard Boyatzis, a professor of organizational behaviour, psychology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University, echoes this sentiment. His research shows that, while deadlines certainly help team-members to burn down tasks quickly, they make them less open to alternative ways of approaching the problem.


    People under pressure to meet deadlines are more likely to stick with their tried-and-true method, even if it might not be the best one. When facing barriers, they’re more likely to adopt Band-Aid solutions to keep moving forward than they are to slow down, identify the root of the problem, and look for solutions to implement that will prevent the issue from reoccurring. If you think about it for even a moment you will recognize this behaviour in yourself. When faced with a deadline, do you sit down, grab a cup of coffee and begin brainstorming options, or do pick the first workable idea that comes to mind to hit your target and run with it?

    Therein lies the real issue with speed-focused, deadline-driven leaders: if you never look up from the short-term deadlines at hand, you’ll never even identify, let alone address, the underlying issues that could enhance speed and productivity in more sustainable — and less stressful — ways over the long-term.

    In the global economy, simple repetitive work is being replaced by technology and moderately complex work can be systematized and done more cheaply by workers in developing countries. This means that the real key to differentiation in the future workplace is the ability of your people to solve problems, and foster innovation. Problem solving and innovation require creative thinking. Creative thinking requires brainstorming, research, testing, measuring and reworking to find sustainable solutions to the deep-seated problems that are the source of real long-term productivity gains. This all takes time up front and along the way, so it is usually resisted when speed is a priority and deadlines loom large.

    Here are a couple of examples:

    To hit their quarterly production targets, a large manufacturing company decides not to take the time to identify the source of a small quality variance at the end of their production line. They hit their quarterly targets, but the next quarter their production line suddenly shuts down and it takes a week to diagnose and fix the problem. A ton of product is destroyed, customers don’t get their orders and must seek other suppliers, and the whole business is thrown into chaos. If the source of that small quality variance had been investigated and addressed when it was first noticed, it would have involved stopping the production line for a half day to fix the problem, but it would have prevented a week of down time just one week later.

    Not all speed addictions have immediate consequences. In many cases, the repercussions of ignoring small issues take months or years to appear. But the metaphor of the “straw that broke the camel’s back” exists for a reason — a bunch of small, seemingly insignificant things piled on top of each other over time can lead to big problems!

    In contrast, a small website development company that specialized in doing custom intranet sites for mid and large size companies had a standing policy of doing quarterly strategic planning meetings with their whole team regardless of how busy they were.  Getting their 80 employees together four times a year was no small feat and it was often tempting to cancel these meetings. One of the questions they asked at these meetings was what was coming down the pipes in their industry that could dramatically change their business for the better or worse.

    At one of these sessions, it became apparent that the availability of website themes and plugins that would allow other web developers to provide the custom functionality they created for their customers at a much lower price point. Despite being at their prime and growing with their current business model, they set aside resources to determine a strategy to address this market shift. Five years later, their business model revenues had dramatically shifted to a focus on one of their key areas of strength: helping businesses design and improve the customer experience for both their employees and their customers.

    The second example is admittedly a tough act to follow. Why? The speed and productivity-focused management mindset is deeply ingrained in management thinking because, to some degree, it is effective. The question then becomes, how do we know when to stay focused on speed and when to slow down to get better results?

    Are You a Speed Demon?

    The first step in shifting your mindset is to take a look in the mirror. Are you always in a hurry to get things done? Are you often frustrated that tasks take longer than expected?

    Read the following statements. Do any of them sound like your mantra?

    • How soon can we get this done?
    • Why haven’t you started that yet?
    • How can we reduce our timelines for completion?
    • What is taking so long?

    If so, there’s a good chance you’re operating on the unproductive side of the speed equation. Your goals are likely too ambitious (if not unreasonable) and you risk compromising quality for speed. Ask yourself: why is speed necessary? Is there a legitimate reason for the ambitious deadline? Or are you just convinced that faster is always better?

    For example, do you really need your new website up in six weeks? If you are going to be attending your first major tradeshow in seven weeks and planning to use that to launch your new product, then there is genuine urgency and you need to get busy slapping it up. If, on the other hand, you’re updating an existing site, then it makes sense to take your time to do market research, revisit your brand and culture foundations, and rework your copy so that at the end of the day you end up with something that is truly better, not just different.

    When it comes to your speed addiction, it is important to understand that shorter timeliness involve compromises. In the “iron triangle” of project management you can only have two of three sides: good, fast or cheap. If you are going for speed, this means that you need to either increase costs or compromise on quality. And even if there are not limits to the amount of money that can be thrown at something, quality takes time.

    To be fair, there are times in both life and work where “good enough” and off your plate is better than waiting for perfection. As Seth Godin says, the ability to “ship it” is a key element of business success in a rapidly changing economy. Over the long-term, however, focusing on speed above all else creates a culture where the quick-fix prevails, creativity withers and quality — and hence long-term viability — suffers.

    So what’s the alternative?

    Learn to “Slow Down to Speed Up.”

    We teach our clients a management strategy to sustainably optimize speed over the long-term by creating a “Result of Note” (a RON for short) in key areas of their business. A Result of Note is a result, system, or habit that once achieved or implemented seldom, if ever, needs to be revisited. link this to training description on this course) While this may require a greater time and thought investment up front, over the long term it saves time because it builds the habit of long-term, big-picture systems thinking into the achievement of any result. Our process teaches clients to step back, understand the big picture, clarify their goals, identify the root causes of their frustrations, and develop solutions that will not only grow their business, but ensure that they can sustain and build upon that growth long term. In short, we teach them how to “slow down to speed up”.

    It can be difficult for leaders to shift out of their addiction to fast results and learn to invest the time it takes to add permanent value to any product, project or process in a business. Consider the following:

    • It takes time and money to develop a proper brand style guide, but all successful companies have one. Why? They realize that the lack of a consistent, professional style in their communications materials is hurting their image, wasting time, and causing unnecessary conflict. Good design can be very subjective, after all! Over a few years, a good style guide can save hundreds of hours of design meetings, font-switching and colour-tweaking.
    • Creating templates and scripts for responding to common e-mails or phone inquiries seems like a no-brainer, however you’d be surprised how many companies lack these efficiencies. Why? Leaders tend to underestimate the importance of having things put down in writing. I regularly hear business owners comment that they way they want their people to do things is “common sense” and that they don’t understand why their staff don’t “get it”. Entrepreneurs instinctively understand the culture they want to create in their business, so it is infused in every communication they make on behalf of their business. Employees need help to get there. We frequently work with business owners whose biggest complaint is that their staff don’t do things the way they want them to, bu how could they if there are no written systems to communicate how the owner wants things done?

    Designing a Management Strategy that Balances Speed and Sustainability

    To cement this mindset shift you must focus on restoring the balance between speed and sustainability. This means prioritizing time for planning, organizing and strategizing. If these tasks feel like they’re taking too long — and, for someone used to quick results, they probably will — get curious about why instead of pushing, prodding, or cheerleading your team to hurry.

    Develop a habit of yourself the following questions:

    • Does speed really matter? Why? What am I afraid will happen if we slow down?
    • What are we compromising to get more speed? Is it worth it?
    • Is “good enough” okay on this project? Or is it a foundation piece that needs to stand the test of time?
    • What timelines should we set for this project based on everything else we have on our plate?
    • Are the proposed timelines reasonable in light of our resources?
    • Do we have the bandwidth to take this on now?
    • What other deadlines would need to be changed or projects postponed to fast-track this one?
    • Is there a real benefit to doing this now vs. putting it off until later? What might be the benefit of postponing it?
    • Have we allowed enough time in the schedule for planning, creativity, and fine-tuning to ensure we do it well?

    At the end of the day, choosing the slow-and-steady approach vs. the sprint-and-crash approach is going to be better for your business, not to mention your sanity.


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