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

Part 2 of a 3 part essay on the future of work in a post COVID-19 World. 

As we discussed last time, in order for 10x productivity not to be just a pipe dream for your organisation, the four different types of knowledge work that you and your employees wrestle with every day need to start working for you, and not against you. In the second of my three-part essay on the future of work in a post Covid-19 world, I’m going to be examining four key areas that demand your focus if we are to move forward towards 10x productivity. Interestingly each also relates to a question, Why, Who, How, What and although I don’t discuss when, timing is always a critical aspect of being productive.  

Purpose – Why 

An organisation’s big purpose, its why, mission, vision, is supported by many smaller purposes, which in turn are supported by its knowledge workers. These smaller purposes make up all the different objectives that when optimally aligned, keep the organisation productive. So, a clear and defined purpose, big or small, with clear and defined objectives, is key for a high performing organisation. A major part of this is down to clarity decreasing waste, which therefore increases time for problem solving work, which in turn engages employees, and if you can turn that engagement into inspiration, it’s been shown that employees who are inspired can be 125% more productive (source: HBR). Yes, that 125%.  So, purpose deals with two essential needs – clarification of work and workforce inspiration. One is tangible, the other less so. The level of increased productivity between highly motivated and unmotivated members of staff has been shown to be significant (source: Forbes). Problematic levels of motivation during the Covid-19 pandemic have been widely reported such as with video conference fatigue, demonstrating these challenges in a very real ways. Bestselling author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek is quoted as saying, ‘There are only two ways to influence human behaviour: you can manipulate it, or you can inspire it’. In the third part of my trio of essays, I’ll be discussing how new ways of working can help turn engagement into this ever-illusive inspiration.  

People and Connections – Who

If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing’ – 

W. E. Deming, engineer, author, and management consultant. 

Work stems from people and for the most part, it is done by people. Concepts like work in progress (WIP) limits can help staff manage their workload and work optimally. However, this concept is not widely adopted outside of the automotive and some manufacturing industries. The switching costs, switching from one type of work to another (reactive, planning, procedural), should not be underestimated and has a significant impact on the most productive type of knowledge work; problem solving. Switching costs therefore impact on peoples’ ability to get into a state of flow and deliver quality pieces of work. Flow is the concept of being in the moment. Everyone has experienced flow at different times in their life. It’s when your brain is firing on all cylinders, you see connections and possibilities that weren’t there before, and when you remember to check the time, inexplicably, hours have passed. This is not because you haven’t been paying attention, but because you were in a state of flow. Distraction is the enemy of flow, and yet we allow email and instant messaging to fuel our work worlds and continually interrupt us, making it harder than ever to get into this state.  Work stems from people. At least at the moment for the most part. Artificial intelligence has the potential to change this, but more on that later.   Businesses are like living beings, they react to stimuli. When change happens, the effects ripple throughout the entire organisation; and if the change is not managed efficiently this can result in wasted time and energy, a bit like a stubbed toe turning into a broken foot. And just like a living being, the knowledge contained within an organisation needs care and attention as it’s not just held in files and folders. How information is exchanged around a business depends on connections, and the standard of these connections will impact on productivity.  You can’t stop an employee from leaving, but you can provide clear connected pathways to ensure that the knowledge in their head remains within the organisation. And the knowledge workers that remain need to understand how their work impacts and contributes to the whole. The McKinsey Global Institute has shown that productivity improves by 20 – 25% in businesses with highly connected people. Communication, be it face to face, software, though API’s or middleware; much of it stems from its tools and processes which are often narrowly focused within an organisational silo. Increasing and improving the connectivity, therefore increases and improves productivity. However, 74 percent of employees say they miss out on crucial company communication (Source: Mindshare), which should make you wonder just what else your business is missing out on.  

Process – How

The next fundamental block is process. Although many of us may not realise it, every piece of work we do has a process. This could just be the way you’ve always done it, it might be notes or tasks you create, or it might be a clearly documented process that every employee is required to follow. But all work has a process behind it.  Great organisations recognise this and invest in documenting and optimising their processes creating standard operating procedures and target operating procedures. They use continuous improvement to identify and deliver better ways of working. It’s through this work, core competencies can be established and used for significant competitive advantage. Great examples of this would be General Electric, and SONY who are both well known for their use of ‘Playbooks’ and six sigma to define their process.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of businesses don’t have clear processes, instead they rely on recruiting smart people and letting them do it their way. This can work, but when people leave, the owner of the process leaves too, and so does the institutional intelligence they brought with them.  

The Message – What 

But if you want successful connections, you will also need to get the messaging right. In fact, if any of the above fundamental blocks are to work efficiently, it all comes down to the messaging. Messages are everywhere in our modern world, from the 280 character tweet, to the hefty documents we use to educate and inform. Organisations rely on sound bites, press releases, meeting minutes, sales decks, emails, IMs, FAQ sheets, the list goes on and on. Message creation, and then subsequent message updates can result in organisational waste if the initial clarity is lacking. The creation of assets left unadopted by teams across an organisation, or a message so jumbled that every employee interprets it differently, are all stumbling blocks to productivity. Simply put, messaging is knowledge sharing and knowledge management, and unless a business has invested in the right communication tools, as the organisation grows, any messaging problems, and therefore hindrances of attaining 10x productivity, grow with it.  Traditional ways of working are evolving, we didn’t need a pandemic to show us that, but maybe it’s taken one to make us see where the fault lines our in our companies and organisations lie. In my final essay, I will be pulling everything together and showing how the application of artificial intelligence is the next stage in the 10x productivity revolution.  

Corporate social responsibility: Can we afford not to get this right, and can creative problem solving play a part?

I was struck by Apple’s recent public commitment to be carbon-neutral by 2030.  It’s no surprise to me that Apple, which prides itself on thinking differently, has demonstrated real leadership in this area.  However, it is my firm belief that all similar Fortune 500 companies should demonstrate this kind of leadership.  

Doing the right thing should never be a hard decision, but in reality, it can take real guts, especially if that decision runs counter to making a profit. A good example of this is Delta’s CEO Edward Bastian (whom I have had the pleasure of meeting) who recently said:

“If you board the plane and you insist on not wearing your mask, we will insist that you don’t fly Delta in the future.” It is a clear message that is backed by science, but has become political in the US for various reasons.  This is a clear example of doing the right thing. It’s right for the company as it encourages safe travel, it’s right for travelers because it improves their safety, it’s right for society because it reduces the spread of the virus and it’s right for shareholders because it supports sales in the mid and long term.  

Delta has also demonstrated great leadership with regard to the environment. In February 14, 2020 Delta announced its intention to become the first carbon-neutral airline.  Now, with all the challenges facing the travel industry, this might have been a premature wish.  But it demonstrates the kind of stance and commitment that business leaders at all levels need to take.  This program will cost the airline well over 1 billion dollars to implement. However, directionally it seems like the same type of ‘win win’ approach as the mask wearing statement. This approach is right because it protects mid and long term profits for Delta – and not just Delta, because ALL businesses require a sustainable environment and a functioning and stable society to protect revenues – both for today and for future generations. 

These kinds of challenge can be addressed in part by programs like Salesforce Pledge 1%, in which 1% of sales, support, time and products are given to good causes. These kinds of programs will need to be more broadly adopted if we are going to overcome the kinds of challenges that many parts of the USA are witnessing.

COVID-19 has been an acute and real problem, swamping everyone’s thoughts but we should not forget the significant environmental changes we will face in the next fifty years which bring their own, very real challenges. To that end, even oil companies like BP are getting in on the act with a 2050 goal of being carbon neutral. Oil and gas operations are being completely offset by more efficient production, production reduction strategies and carbon sink projects. I believe that 2050 is a cop-out target personally but directionally at least, the right leadership stances are being taken. 

Now Imagine if Delta and BP could accelerate their business model changes to support each other to create a real win for all stakeholders.  With just a little creative problem solving, the possible becomes probable. We need more of this kind of thinking. Creative thinking that looks at constraints as opportunities, that see problems as a catalyst to drive significant and real change. We need more effective partnerships that avoid win-loss and strive for success for all stakeholders. 

With a focus on network analysis and the connections between businesses, we can enable new partnerships that can lead to breakthrough business models which solve society’s most pressing problems. We should use employee diversity and creative problem solving to do the most important and valuable work in the post-COVID-19 world, leaders of all spheres of influence need to demonstrate new levels of humanity and compassion for each other and raise the bar for their organizations and society. 

This leads me to a future topic—is there such a thing as good profits and bad profits?

I am interested in everyone’s views as a business leader, employee or an investor. Please share your thoughts. 

#leadership #corporatesocialresponsability #creativeproblemsolving