#84 - Work More, Produce Less! The Curious Case Of Falling Productivity 🕵️♂️
Fix the inputs and the outputs will fix themselves. - James Clear, Atomic Habits
Many of the companies Usman and I get to work with suffer from a lack of a well-defined culture. They lack a set of codified values and behaviors, and this, in turn, impacts their ability to hire well, but also to manage, inspire, and motivate their teams.
Some of these orgs are simply young: they're startups that haven't gotten around to it, and rely on culture to spread osmotically, the way it did in the early stages of few employees. Other firms are more mature; they may have defined something before, but it's been a while and the company has evolved; and/or the team now works more remotely, so a lack of clarity on who they are, how they operate, and what they value and reward is exacting more of a toll.
So one of the exercises we run involves mining the histories of where leaders have worked (and studied, and played) in the past. Where and why did work almost not feel like work? Which settings energized them? What types of leaders, managers, or advisors did they flourish with?
The goal is to understand the styles that resonate and environments they enjoy; to ID the traits those environments have in common. From there, we can discern values and behaviors, and then set about tying those to performance, compensation, and promotion. 🙌🏻
It's nuanced, rewarding work! But it's also easy to forget how simple and intuitive the goal is: an environment in which leaders and their teams can produce, and thrive. Clarity, for everyone, as to what it means to thrive in that environment, and how you'll be rewarded if you do.
Ultimately, we all want to thrive, right? As team members, we want an environment in which we feel included, challenged, and impactful. And as employers, we're keen to ensure our teams produce!
But here's the thing, folks: our collective productivity is down right now. As in, the amount of work we're getting done in our jobs is falling. Not just falling, but plummeting, and without much end -- or explanation -- in sight. MSNBC explains:
A statement like that gets a big TalentStories "hmm" 🤔 emoji. Three of them, this time: 🤔 🤔 🤔
And it prompts us to ask: why? How can it be that we feel like we're working more than ever, if we're producing less?
Last week, we looked at personal productivity, and whether we were measuring the right aspects of our lives and our work. We explored how mindsets were shifting from an external "getting things done", to an internal: "Am I working on the right things?".
This week, we question productivity again, but this time at the org level. And again we explore: are we measuring the right stuff? Do we need a shift in corporate mindset? We dig into three arguments as to why productivity is falling to shed light on what employees achieve -- and how we achieve it:
🎯 Story #1 - Management guru Peter Drucker said, "What gets measured gets managed." So what are we measuring -- and managing -- when it comes to productivity? A timely article points out that measuring the inputs to our work, instead of actual output, is inherently flawed in 2023. Even as it reminds us that we stubbornly focus on those inputs. 😔
🎯 Story #2 - A new book by an operations professor at MIT argues that productivity is falling because employee turnover is so high. It's a simple and intuitive narrative supported by reams of data. Oh, and you'll never guess what the #1 cause of employee turnover is. Oh, wait, you did guess it: it's (still) your boss. ⬇️
🎯 Story #3 - A behavioral scientist makes an impassioned case that the key driver of productivity is classic, time-honored trust. How and why do trust -- and its partners-in-crime, flexibility and autonomy -- lead to such productive teams and organizations? Get that right here, from our last Story. 🙌
Thanks for reading and exploring with us -- and have a great end to your week!
Aki + Usman
#Productivity #Measurement #InputsVsOutput
When I left Netflix to start TalentStories, a good friend -- someone who held corporate jobs before starting his own company -- asked me: "Don't you love all the time and energy you get back now, as an entrepreneur on your own, that used to go into politics and posturing and personalities?"
To be honest, I hadn't thought of it in those terms at that point. I think I just got lucky: the firms I worked for were small in the years I worked for them, and were "fast-moving" tech companies, so I never felt clobbered by bureaucracy and politics.
Even then, I could appreciate how spot-on my friend was: work is highly performative. What we do, what we say, how we say it; when we show up, how we show up -- a lot of energy goes into all of it. Our meetings, Zoom calls, email, Slack messages -- you name it. His question struck a chord, and I thought of it again when I read an article called "Your boss is so obsessed with productivity without knowing what it means", which I suspect will resonate with many:
The point of the article is that managers and organizations constantly conflate inputs and effort with output, making the entire productivity debate flawed. (And since so much of the return-to-office argument is predicated on productivity, by the way, this becomes a very relevant and timely observation).
Now, it might strike us as naive for managers to fixate on such a dated definition of productivity, despite working and leading in a knowledge economy. (When hunting for quotes about "inputs and outputs" to kick off this issue, what came up was something James Van Fleet said: "Output always equals input." Curious, and skeptical as to his logic, btw, I Googled James Van Fleet. He was an officer in the U.S. Army -- in World Wars I and II. i.e. a leader who served in an organization defined by command-and-control, nearly 100 years ago.)
The more you think about it though, the more managers' equation of productivity with inputs and physical presence makes sense. In fact, I think bosses know exactly what productivity means; for them, it just happens to mean a performative, grindy version of productivity. You know, the one that made them the boss.
Factor #1 then, in our effort to understand falling productivity, is measurement; how the term "productivity" is being defined -- and who is defining it.
#Productivity #Turnover #BadBosses
Zeynep Ton is a professor at MIT, and an expert in supply chains and operations. No surprise then that studying how companies optimize production led her to investigate how they manage their highest-leverage resource: their people. She wrote a book about it, and uses a ton of data there to argue that:
It all seems plausible, if not obvious: quit rates are high right now, the labor market is extremely tight, and people are taking longer and longer to opt into new roles. So it follows that turnover could well be one of the factors causing productivity to decline.
And by the way, the leading cause of workers quitting is? Bad bosses, ill-equipped to be able to engage their teams. Let's posit here then that factor #2 in the quest to understand falling productivity is the crippling effect of high turnover -- and the poor management that so often causes it.
#Productivity #Trust #Autonomy #Engagement
Gleb Tsipursky is an author and behavioral scientist, and we dig the clarity and candor of his headline, even if it's a bit click-baity. 👆🏻
Let's close the loop straight away then: what are "the two ways in which we're failing employees"?
- Trust: forced return-to-office mandates are eroding trust between employers and employees. And when trust is low, productivity suffers. Whereas high-trust organizations get increased productivity and are more likely to have healthy cultures.
- Autonomy: When companies mandate a return to the office, they risk unintentionally removing employees' autonomy. High-performing organizations, on the other hand, offer higher levels of autonomy, which is closely tied to trust, and acts as a "catalyst" or enabler of productivity.
For Tsipurskym productivity comes down to trust, autonomy and flexibility. And while the devil is, always, in their implementation, his article deftly links the three concepts to one another, and to productivity. I highly recommend it, but for those short on time:
Tsipursky brings data to his case, and the data are clear as to the decline in productivity that's plaguing us, on the one hand:
And on the other, the data are just as clear on the correlation between productivity and trust:
[Emphasis added, because 🤯 ]
Tsipursky goes on to explain:
And he ends with some fantastic insight on autonomy, and the way it links to trust -- and productivity:
In the end then, it's very likely that productivity is falling, perhaps even steeply. Let's bear in mind though the extent to which leaders define productivity; how much power we have to influence it; and how much leverage trust, autonomy and flexibility offer us to be able to do that. ✌️
Thanks for reading. 🙏