What Would Enable You to Deliver Optimal Performance at Work?

Talk to anyone working today, be it in a startup or a well-established Fortune 500 company, and they will tell you the same thing – “I’m working so hard but there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do my job.” It’s not just that they are spending more hours working, but it’s also that they are trying to do two, three or four things at once. Simply put, American workers have lost all control over setting reasonable boundaries for how they spend their time and energy. Most agree that they are not delivering optimal performance at work, nor do they take the time to stop and rethink their priorities and work structure.

Recent studies have documented that the average employee switches tasks every three minutes, is interrupted every two minutes and has a maximum focus stretch of 12 minutes. Rather than making things better, this multi-tasking behavior actually makes things worse. Another study showed that when a person switches away from their primary task to do something else, they increase the time it takes to do the original task by 25%.

So why are so many people engaged in such unproductive behavior? Because they think it’s expected of them even though they know this behavior results in sub-optimal performance. Here are some recent quotes from employees interviewed by The New York Times:

  •  “I have new responsibilities that demand creative and strategic thought, but I’m not getting to them.”
  • “I have too many meetings to attend and I can’t get any real work done.”
  • “I have too many e-mails, and given day-to-day urgencies, the backlog keeps growing.”
  • “I feel like I’m not giving the right amount of attention to what’s most important.”

Companies, for their part, are doing everything they can to squeeze more revenue out of fewer employees as they seek to bolster their bottom lines. In fact, since 2007 revenue per employee for those companies in the S&P 500 has increased 11.4%. The irony is that better overall productivity for the company may not translate to increased productivity for the individual worker.

“Think Weeks” a la Gates

So what can be done to help individuals from CEO’s to mid-level managers to front line workers regain some measure of control over what they do and how they do it? For CEO’s and other C-Level executives, they may want to try a steal a page from Bill Gates old playbook. When Bill was CEO of Microsoft, he would schedule periodic “think weeks” where he would literally go off to his cabin in the woods for a week and do nothing but read and think about the big changes that could impact Microsoft’s future success. It was on one of these think weeks that he finally came to the conclusion that Microsoft’s closed architecture business model was no match for the emerging open architecture model of the Internet. As such, he helped engineer a major corporate pivot for the company.

Try “Block Days”

I have worked with C-Level executives and other senior leaders to create “block days” which are full calendar days where the individual comes into the office but has nothing scheduled on their calendar for that day. How they have used these days has varied, but for the most part it gave them large chunks of uninterrupted time to think about major issues and events that had the potential to fundamentally change the desired outcomes for their organization or business unit.

Core & Context Assessment

Another tool I have found to be very effective is to ask the individual to go through his or her calendar for the preceding month and put everything they did into one of two columns. Column one was Core Activities that is any activity that directly contributes to improving the business growth and financial performance of the company. Column two is Context Activities which are all the other things that have to get done that do not directly contribute to improving the revenue and profits of the company. We then added up the time in each respective column that gave the individual their core & context ratio. Much to their chagrin, most individuals saw first-hand that 75% – 80% of their time was spent on context activities that had no direct impact on the performance of their company. The next step was to make significant changes in how they allocated their time in order to drive that ratio toward over 50% on core activities.

Lastly, I just recently came across a very interesting article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Employees, Measure Yourselves”. It identified six different tools that individuals can use to track and measure how they spend their time and energy and what they can do to improve their performance at work and find a better balance on a personal level. Here is the list of six:

  • This tool automatically measures how long users spend on various websites and applications, and allows them to keep track of how they spend their time away from the computer.
  • Users can track any type of data they choose to input, personal or work-related, and view interactive graphs to spot trends and patterns.
  • Users track their productivity by responding to a daily e-mail that asks “what’d you get done today?”
  • This tool helps users organize, prioritize and track their activities, and offers help in dealing with distractions and information overload.
  • This tool aims to give users a comprehensive view of their lives by guiding them through the tracking of eight different variables in their life – health, finance, relationships, career, spirituality, community, learning and leisure.
  • It provides tools for monitoring heart-rate variability as part of a stress-reduction program.

So while there are lots of tools and processes an individual can access and use, at the end of the day, I think it comes down to each person finally saying “Enough is Enough — today is the day I start to set reasonable boundaries on how I am going to spend my time and energy.” Resetting those boundaries should go a long way to regaining control over how you deliver optimal performance at work and still have a life outside of work that is worth living.

~ Peter

Power Generates Performance but Performance Consumes Power

In 1997, when Amazon went public, its CEO, Jeff Bezos issued a manifesto – “It’s all about the long term.” Over the ensuing 14 years, Mr. Bezos has not only honored that manifesto he has become a leading practitioner of making investments in long term growth over decisions that favor short term earnings performance. The results speak for themselves with the company’s stock soaring 12,200 percent since its IPO.

By contrast, look at Kodak who has acted like a financial contortionist trying to find and deploy multiple short term gimmicks to keep a failed business model alive quarter after quarter and has finally had to throw in the towel. During that period of time, they missed numerous opportunities to capitalize on business growth innovations including the social networking potential of online photos. By staying exclusively focused on the short term, Kodak is in the process of systematically liquidating its entire business franchise.

What Amazon understood and Kodak didn’t is that power generates performance but performance consumes power. As such, when any company makes decisions that favor short term earnings performance they eventually liquidate their long term power to grow. There are two extremely strong forces within well-established successful companies that tilt the decision making scales toward the short term. The first is the company’s annual planning process which favors resource allocations to legacy businesses over new businesses. The second is the company’s incentive compensation plan which holds senior leadership teams accountable for delivering short term performance but not for making long term investments that increase the company’s power to grow.

Another good example of contrasting approaches to investing in the long term versus the short term is to look at Apple and Microsoft. From 2000 to 2004 both companies were primarily engaged in supporting their core businesses – for Apple it was the hardware and software to support the Macintosh Computer and for Microsoft it was the software to support Windows and Office. In mid-decade, Apple broke ranks and launched a whole new next generation business in music with the release of the iPod. That was followed later in the decade by the launch of a second next generation business in mobile phones with the release of the iPhone. As the decade was coming to an end, Apple launched yet a third next generation business in tablets with the release of the iPad. While all this was going on, Microsoft continued to pour the majority of its resources into its existing Windows and Office businesses. As the chart below dramatically illustrates, the market rewarded investments in long term growth from next generation businesses over short term performance from established businesses.

Can You Curate Innovation in Large Well-Established Companies?

This guest blog is by Karen Lippe who is a consulting partner with Wild Oak Enterprises.  As a veteran marketing technologist, Karen shares her view of the challenges of innovation within the corporate structure. ~ Peter

Innovation.  For companies, especially those in tech, innovation defines a company.  Throughout my years working in Silicon Valley, large companies seeking to become more innovative typically approach innovation creation using two distinct paths:  innovation from inside (aka creating a skunk works-like division) and innovation outside (aka creating an autonomous subsidiary).  Even with the brightest visionary creators, the smartest engineers, the savviest marketers and deep purse strings to support the corporate endeavor, the commercial results are marginal at best or the product is killed off before it goes to market.  This begs the question:  why haven’t more companies (I mean a lot more) been more successful with their investment of innovative products?

The answer is two-fold:  first, they did not define what success was to begin with (if at all), and second, they used the wrong measurements to define the progress of the product or solution.

Defining success.  Even with the best intentions, companies view innovation as a means to create a viable product or solution that would [you pick one:  redirect … reinvent … boost … even save] the mother ship and create a more profitable path.  Innovation is not a savior.  Innovation is the opportunity to leverage the companies own DNA; assess its strengths and weaknesses; view innovative ideas with a new lens (preferably not rose colored); and if good timing is on your side, disrupt the entire market.

A former colleague, Geoffrey Moore, touches upon the idea of success and innovation in his new book, Escape Velocity.  He lays out a smart systematic approach called the “The Hierarchy of Powers” that challenges organizations to look at the whole company from a success vector.  As he drills down, he shares tools and models that set the stage for large companies to be innovation friendly and carve a path that will ultimately garner greater profits.

How do you measure the progress of an innovative product?  Unfortunately new innovation typically dies before it comes to market.  Whether using the inside or outside path mentioned earlier, companies with good intentions embrace an idea and run forward.  To curate innovation from within a corporate environment a tipping point approach is recommended.  Moore discusses tipping point execution as a means toward success.  Simply described, step one  establishes  a model with set project indicators and metrics to measure progress, and step two, creates a milestone-based plan that is formulated working backwards from the desired end result.   If a tipping point approach is not considered, innovators typically enter a vicious cycle of reselling the idea to senior management whereas the effort becomes defocused then dies.  In addition, the tipping point methodology is quite versatile and can be applied to products entering markets where social media increasingly plays an influential role — tapping into peer communities.  Peer group influence can push products in or out of favor and move the “why to buy” to the “I have to buy” tipping point.

To harvest ideas into successful and commercially viable products is always the challenge and undeniable hard work.  If innovation remains the brass ring (what you grab) in technology companies then attaining innovation success is the Holy Grail (the ultimate quest).