“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” — Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism
Over the course of my career, I’ve found that almost nothing cripples a company like busyness for the sake of busyness. Employees waste precious time on work that isn’t directly related to team goals or the company vision, all while spinning their wheels with menial, irrelevant tasks.
The result of all this busyness is burnout and disengagement — the cost of which Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile puts at a staggering $300 billion per year for the US economy. That’s more than half of the nation’s annual investment in research and development.
“Busyness culture,” as the psychologist Tony Crabbe calls it, occurs when people can’t actually account for how their busyness is tied to strategic business goals, so they do tasks merely to feel insulated against criticism. While I was interviewing him for my book, Done Right: How Tomorrow’s Leaders Get Stuff Done, Crabbe told me, “You never have to justify working faster and harder and quicker. And that’s why busyness is seductive.”
But working faster and harder and quicker is not what you’re going for. You’re going for results.
The antidote to busyness requires focusing on three concepts.
First, make sure you have spent time answering the questions “Why are we working on this?” and “For whom is the work being done?” When you ask these questions directly to team members, you may discover that not everyone sees eye to eye, so it is good to make a habit of incorporating these questions into the planning phase of every project. If each person fully buys into why they are doing something and who the audience is, the big steps in the process often take care of themselves.
Second, apply continuous pressure through a technique called “the best next action” — a technique that focuses on one thing you can do in the next two weeks to achieve your next milestone.
Crabbe’s research has led him to believe that in order for knowledge workers to be most effective, they must think of their long-term goals in terms of what to do right now. He said, “What we’re trying to do now is get people to insert a question before committing their time: ‘Should I check my email now or go to that meeting?’ or ‘Which is more valuable: working on my three goals or spending a couple of hours in a meeting?’ It then becomes a meaningful choice.” This matches my experience as well. I’ve seen how thinking about day-to-day actions in the context of strategic goals increases productivity, results, and the velocity of action.
Third, inspect the work by using questioning techniques that eliminate defensiveness. The key is neutral language, bare of emotion, guilt, blame, or praise. Questions worth considering include “How likely is this to get done?” or “What quality of work do you think is happening on this?” Using neutral language like this helps you avoid potential conflict. It also helps you motivate your team to do what matters most.
Neutral language paired with encouraging words makes for a powerful combination. Talk to Philip Stickland of Adventist Health System, whom I also interviewed for Done Right, and he’ll describe running daily scrums with his team that quickly determine what’s working and what the obstacles are to progress.
“I know I can run through a daily list of tasks that are ‘done,’ ‘doing,’ ‘will do,’ and ‘blocked’ with my team in 10 minutes,” Stickland told me. “They know what I expect, and they know that I respect that they can do what needs to be done.” This is the kind of clear-eyed leadership that leads teams to focus on their top priorities above all else.
In the end, leadership is largely about helping your team stay focused on what matters most. Busyness, unfortunately, gets in the way — which is why it’s critical for you to do everything in your power to eliminate it.
Ask “why?,” stay focused on the best next action, and use neutral language to empower your team. If your team executes on the most important tasks again and again, you’ll find that you’re exceeding your vision.
Alex Shootman is president and CEO of Workfront.