confusion

People are the lifeblood of any organization, but getting the right people on the bus is a real challenge.

First, you need to build a strong brand and company that talented people want to work for. Then, you must attract, evaluate, and hire candidates who have the right skills, share the organization’s values, and are satisfied with the compensation the company can offer. Third, you must empower your employees to deliver and create a fulfilling work environment so that they actually stick around.

That third step is usually where things come undone. The larger an organization gets, the more likely it is to inadvertently sabotage its people’s ability to make decisions and get things done. Below are a number of common symptoms of this, their underlying causes, and actionable solutions.

Symptom: Our People Can’t Make Decisions

Cause: A consensus-seeking culture

Instead of empowering people to make decisions and move forward, we seek consensus for almost everything. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos eloquently highlighted the folly of such cultures in a 2016 letter to shareholders, where he makes the distinction between what he calls “Type 1″ and “Type 2″ decisions.

Type 1 decisions are big, hairy, irreversible, high stakes, and require careful consideration. Type 2 decisions are inconsequential, reversible, and should be made quickly. Most decisions are Type 2 decisions, and Bezos warns that many people unnecessarily use the rigorous Type 1 decision-making process on even these small decisions. As a result, companies move slowly, cultivate an aversion to risk, fail to experiment sufficiently, and diminish invention. All of this, in turn, increases workplace stress, which is closely linked to our sense of control, or lack thereof.

Sound familiar?

Solution:

  1. Clearly delineate between Type 1 and Type 2 decisions, and empower people to make more of the latter.
  2. Push back on Type 2 consensus-seeking when you can.
  3. Consider lowering delegations of authority for decisions where it is reasonable to do so.

Symptom: Our People Can’t Think

Cause: Hyper-responsiveness

The average employee is interrupted 50-60 times per day, and about 80 percent of these interruptions are unimportant. Each of these interruptions prevents people from getting into what psychologists call “the flow state” — you might know it as “the zone” — an optimal cognitive state wherein we are up to five times more productive than we normally are.

Today, the typical workplace is characterized by the sights and sounds of desktop and smartphone notifications, which keep people in a state of hyper-responsiveness that puts Pavlov’s dog to shame. What we call multitasking is in actuality task switching, and after a notification has forced us to switch between tasks, it can take us 23 minutes to get back into flow. When you consider that the average employee touches their smartphone 2,617 times per day, checks emails 74 times per day and receives 46 smartphone notifications per day, you may wonder whether your workers are able to spend any time in a flow state at all! Even task switches that individually take just a tenth of a second — like glancing at a notification but not pursuing it — can add up to a 40 percent productivity loss over the course of a day.

Solution:

  1. Clearly communicate to employees the impact that task switching and interruptions can have on productivity.
  2. Train people to block off time in their calendars for deep focus. Employees should turn off notifications during these periods of time.
  3. Let employees know they don’t need to respond to most requests immediately.
  4. Stop interrupting people sporadically throughout the day.

Symptom: People Don’t Have Enough Time

Cause: Hyper-availability

Time RichThe Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca put it best: “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

We say yes to all sorts of demands on our time — like meeting requests — but time, once spent, cannot be earned back. Furthermore, the time we spend on these trivial matters is often being stolen from our priorities.

In a 2019 interview with The Australian Financial Review, Atlassian’s work futurist Dominic Price noted that meetings were killing not only his productivity, but also his job satisfaction: “My time was this precious resource that I was frittering away on stuff that wasn’t important or impactful. But no one else was going to change that unless I chose to change it.”

Price canceled all of his meetings, and he found that most were either “boomerangs” or “sticks”: Either they came back when he threw them (he got invited again), or they didn’t. For Price, two-thirds of his meetings turned out to be sticks, and he won back 15 hours a week he could invest in more rewarding pursuits.

On the other side of this coin, we have a tendency to schedule blocks of time in our colleague’s calendars with absolutely zero regard for what they’re working on and how our interruptions might interfere with their goals.

Solution:

  1. Don’t default to meetings or picking up the phone when an email or instant message will suffice.
  2. If you must meet, invite only the necessary people and schedule shorter meetings (15-30 minutes instead of 60 minutes by default).
  3. Communicate that it is okay for people to decline meeting requests if they have other commitments.
  4. Discourage claiming time in people’s calendars without first checking in with colleagues.
  5. Practice asynchronous communication. Most things don’t require real-time receipt and acknowledgment.

Symptom: People Can’t Create Value

Cause: Process paralysis

As organizations get larger, processes and policies are introduced to ensure that people deliver on the business model with minimal mistakes. However, employees can all too easily become embroiled in complex webs of process that stifle their ability to get things done and deplete their morale. Paradoxically, while the proverbial assembly line might help us efficiently deliver product, it also renders us efficient at delivering the wrong product in the event of change.

The long-term effects of debilitating process include disgruntled employees and resignations, leaving the organization with its less capable workers as top talent heads off in search of greener pastures. This is precisely why Netflix’s former chief talent officer, Patty McCord, built the streaming giant’s culture around empowering its people by keeping processes at a viable minimum. Doing so ensured Netflix could continue to attract, engage, and retain top-tier talent — which is fundamental to survival and success in a highly competitive and fast-changing media landscape.

Solution:

Cultivate a minimum viable bureaucracy, or MVB. An MVB has just enough processes to support operations and manage risk, but not so much that speed, morale, and the capacity to innovate suffer. At its core, an MVB is all about optimizing the creation of value while eliminating waste.

Increase value:

  1. Stretch the product S-curve.
  2. Share learnings.
  3. Leverage customer referrals.
  4. Double-down on high-performing products and marketing.
  5. Focus on high-value activities.

Eliminate waste:

  1. Decrease the number of steps required to make decisions and take action to a minimum, without leaving the organization vulnerable to unacceptable risks.
  2. Automate rudimentary processes.
  3. Outsource what can’t be automated.
  4. Lower delegations of authority.
  5. Treat Type 2 decisions as Type 2 decisions.
  6. Decrease the frequency of actions (e.g., routine meetings and reporting).
  7. Eliminate tasks that no longer add sufficient value to the organization.

By cultivating a culture where people can make decisions and take action, not only do you speed up the pace of value creation and increase your company’s ability to innovate, but you also provide your people with the kind of rewarding and fulfilling experience that attracts, engages, and retains high-performing talent for the long haul.

Steve Glaveski is the author of Time Rich: Do Your Best Work, Live Your Best Life (Wiley), out in October 2020.

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