How to deliver 10X productivity (Part I) for Knowledge workers?

Essay (1 of 3) on the future of work in a post COVID-19 World.

Even before Covid 19 changed our working lives, for a long time the way the majority of companies work has been buckling under numerous pressures. For example, how many times have you felt your heart sink on opening your inbox and seeing all your productive time vanish until after lunch? So with remote working the new normal for the foreseeable future, now more than ever, the way we work desperately needs to evolve to keep us on track and in doing so, boost our productivity. Businesses need new tools and processes that support asynchronous working. But how will these work, and what will they achieve?

How about 10x productivity? Sounds like a dream, right? Sounds like unattainable marketing speak you’ve heard 100 times before. Stand up meetings! Do emails in bulk, not as they come in! Never eat lunch at your desk! But actually, 10x productivity is very attainable, if you look at it from a holistic organisation-wide perspective. Which is easy, once you understand what it is you need to achieve.

An organisation that is highly productive is greater than the sum of its parts. Such businesses have a clear understanding of their purpose, their mission. They have an inspiring vision of the future, and a strong constructive culture that empowers and motivates employees to do great work. Finally, highly productive companies have an understanding of the core competencies that make up the foundation for a high performance work environment. They focus on productivity because its though productivity business can increase profitability, lower operating costs, reduce waste and environmental impact, improve competitiveness and increase engagement, to name just a few reasons. In the new world of work where growth for growth’s sake needs to be questioned, productivity might be the obvious replacement that organisations should be fixating over.  

Another critical element to becoming a high performance organisation is a clear understanding of waste. If you haven’t already read it, I would strongly recommend getting a hold of a copy of The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker which sets out Toyota’s strategy in the 1980s. Toyota demonstrated the power of total quality management, just in time, and work in progress (WIP) limits, all based around constraints theory with roots in ideas proposed by American engineer, statistician, and management consultant, W. E. Deming. By interrogating every component of their organisation and aligning them, they were able to visualise what they needed to achieve in order to increase productivity. This strategy ultimately delivered a transformation in the automotive industry. 

So 10x productivity need not be a pipe dream; it’s something that with game changing strategic thinking can be made real. At least that is my hypothesis, but let me share my observations on why I have made this educated guess.

Jason Nash

Let’s look at the building blocks of the most critical aspect of today’s workplace: knowledge work.

To start, we need to understand what knowledge work is and how can we measure productivity of knowledge workers? The definition of knowledge work from Wikipedia is ‘Knowledge work can be differentiated from other forms of work by its emphasis on “non-routine” problem solving that requires a combination of convergent and divergent thinking’. Knowledge workers are therefore the people whose jobs involve handling or using information, often using a computer. And they are at the very heart of how one might deliver on 10x productivity ambitions, especially as this kind of role is undergoing significant change as technology and global pandemics continue to redefine how and where we work. 

We can measure performance as the amount of work (or output) that an employee completes during a period of time (their input). In organisations that produce physical work a simple example might be the amount of bricks a bricklayer lays in the course of a working day. However knowledge work in the service business sector can be harder to measure, although a simple example here might be the number of lines of code a software engineer produces, or the number of words a copywriter has produced.

All knowledge work falls into four different blocks: reactionary, planning, procedural, and problem-solving. Let’s go through them and highlight some pitfalls.

Reactionary Work: 

This makes up a large and growing proportion of our daily work. Reactionary work is replying to an email, or instant message. It’s often minimal value-adding and, in many cases, not particularly well-governed. For example, requests for information or tasks often go unanswered. Why? Because they disappear into inboxes with over 121 other requests on average every day (source: Radicati). Products like Slack have effectively become the equivalent of the virtual water cooler conversation, but have not necessarily increased the productivity they promised, in part because they have increased the amount of reactionary work.  The average organisation can lose up to 20% or 1 day a working week of its productive capacity (source: HBR). Now, you may think of this as naturally occurring organisational drag, but I hypothesise that much of this is down to time spent on reactionary work, and it will have increased due to new internal communication channels and distractions such as Slack and MS Teams. 

Planning work:

The next block of work is planning, relating to both near or long term plans. A lot of this work, especially long term planning, can be a form of waste. A now somewhat dated 2014 article (source: Bain) said as much as 97% of strategic planning is a waste of time in multinational companies. Yes, 97%! It’s easy for businesses to get caught in a planning loop where last year’s plan has not yet been fully executed before the new plan needs to be worked on. I know first hand how dysfunctional this can be, especially when the ideal environment for 10x productivity highlighted at the start of this 3 part essay is missing. And it’s not just the wasted hours and energy that needs to be taken into account, but the wasted employee goodwill when they see their hard work superseded before implementation.

Procedural Work: 

Procedural work can be as simple as planning out your day, ensuring you are working on the right things at the right time, or as complicated as building detailed operating procedures to ensure consistency across a team or department. It is as varied as the work demands. But as any manager knows, localised procedural work can only be effective up to a point. If clear communication strategies are not implemented business-wide, productivity decreases as time is lost due to reasons such as competing egos, misfiled documentation, and duplication of work. And procedural work can be high value, especially if it’s focused on new processes that help a business define new distinctive competencies. 

Problem Solving Work:

And the final block, problem solving work. Problem solving work, which includes training, adds the most value to our work experience by engaging and motivating us. It’s when we find new and creative pathways, which impacts on an organisation’s overall output and innovation. And yet despite how important this work is, it is often the work we spend the least amount of time doing. Why? Because it requires us to focus and ideally enter a state of flow. But how can we do that if we keep being interrupted by the above? This is why you need to focus your attention, and not just your time to truly increase personal and business productivity (source: Forbes).

So those are the types of knowledge work you and your employees wrestle with on a daily basis. In my next post I going to cover the six intersecting blocks that are fundamental to actually getting the work done and driving 10x productivity. Organisations who have found how to align these have successfully gone on to improve productivity at every level.