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Productivity – we have a problem

There has been a flurry of bad press for productivity recently, especially in relation to remote work, but in general too. This is not entirely a new thing – see this pre-pandemic post from a Global Government Forum on The productivity problem: causes, consequences and cures. Two recent discussions around productivity have spurred on this post.

The first is based on Steven Sinofsky’s commentary on Twitter in relation to a recent Microsoft study – see his tweet below and you need to see tweets 3 and 5 in particular, in a series of tweets starting from the one below. I’ve posted them as quotations after the Tweet for convenience and because I will comment on those two points in particular. Steven is a former president of the Windows Division at Microsoft by the way.

3/ I have no doubt that this research accurately captures the flow of information using digital tools around the company for over 60K people. That’s a huge amount of work and analysis. Kudos. The challenge from the outset is that it conflates that flow with “collaboration”.

5/ IMO as a manager, there are two mistakes one could make. One is to measure digital communication and associate it with execution, productivity, or even progress. Second, is to associate any of these measures with collaboration.

The second is by well know author and proponent of deep work, Cal Newport – see one of his books on the right and click on it to review it on Amazon.

It’s one which I have read and does not on the surface talk about productivity, but is in fact all about it. Especially in a world of divided attention. It was written pre-pandemic and now in addition the problem of divided attention you could probably add pandemic induced anxiety.

He recently wrote an article for the new Yorker: The Frustration with Productivity Culture. In it he highlights a lot of excellent points but I have pasted one below in quotes that resonates with me most and I also will use it to comment on.

The problem is not productivity, per se, but the manner in which we seek to increase it. I’m convinced that the solution to the justified exhaustion felt by so many in modern knowledge work can be found in part by relocating the obligation to optimize production away from the individual and back toward systems.

Just before the onset of the first lockdown, I wrote about this topic of productivity specifically but I write about it in general too so I may be complicit in perpetuating the productivity culture 😬 In this last post though I proposed a solution: Workplace collaboration has an outcomes challenge – get intentional to overcome it

It was prescient in that it highlighted a problem then that has really come to fruition now, more than 18 months later. The problem and solution is two-fold:

  1. We are focusing on the wrong things with productivity measurement in that outcomes should be the focus, not output. For me it is all about the outcomes, what is the result of all the activities we are all so busy with. And this is exactly what Steven Sinofsky was alluding to. It refers to productivity software too. You can have all of the most amazing technology in the world but not be producing anything or value or measuring the wrong things as a result of its use. Regardless of how much time you spend or with which tools, the important thing is what is the result and how do you measure that.
  2. The onus should shift away from the individual and to systems. This comes closer to the point I was making in the last article linked to above that I wrote. That is should be about systems. This is what Cal Newport is saying. The onus should be on systems not the individual and systems should be designed so that they are capturing and driving the right activities, focused on the right outcomes.

Which brings me to a DanelDoodle I recently captured – see below. It highlights the two new stereotypes I’m finding are being perpetuated by the new challenges we all face as a result of changing work patterns. It’s as if they are the two opposite camps in a new landscape. On the productivity front and in relation to where work gets done, this is how I’m seeing it.

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