The drawback of personal efficiency

Effectiveness and efficiency are two solid pillars in today’s organisations and the number of books that have been written on the topic are many. How to structure your e-mails, how to do “deep work”, how to get things done, how to have great work life balance while being promoted and training your new dog on Tuesdays. Bottomless pit. One thing I find interesting is that it often covers “personal efficiency” (How am I more efficient/effective so it works out better for ME?). The good old “taking one for the team”, is not as prominent.

Don’t be in a rush to answer e-mails, say no to meetings, set tight timelines for yourself and deliver. Don’t waste time talking to others, wear headphones to scare people off…all so that you can get some serious thinking time in, be the most efficient person you can and deliver on your KPIs. Sounds great. If you read Cyril Leupine’s book “work smarter, live better”, this focuses on exactly that (and it is a great book by the way, this is not criticism). It mentions that; maybe the highest performer is not the most friendly or most helpful person in the office. Cal Newport in his book “Deep work” also mentions a long list of accomplishments that can be mustered up by faking to be out of office.

This does however raise a bit of a question I think. I agree that distractions can kill productivity for you and doing your best to minimise them is not a bad idea. Dealing efficiently with e-mail is a great idea as well…but once you get to faking out of the office replies. Really? Of course suitability to lock yourself away can vary depending on your role, but before we all read email at 1030am and 0430pm only, and constantly work from home to avoid other people. A few things to think about.

Setting targets

Target setting has as much written about it as personal efficiency, at least. Company vision becomes a set of organisational goals or principles. These then trickle down to heads of different areas and functions who then make sure that their managers get targets that align, while the managers put goals, metrics and KPIs in place for their teams so that the company can operate as one big happy family, all pulling in the same direction in order to deliver the overall vision. Simple and conceptually not difficult to understand at all. There is a bit of a catch with it though. Have you ever seen it work?

The norm may be closer to a vision that sometimes become targets set in a form submitted to HR that vaguely agree with the vision and quickly become obsolete while we get asked to spend our time on a hundred things that have nothing to do with the vision but that nevertheless needs doing. What is a goal, target, metrics or KPI vary over time (along with what synonym is in fashion) and mostly depends on what is urgent more than its strategic importance. Also it can only be called fiction that all goals set would be MECE (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive), for sure they are going to overlap, have gaps in between them and be in need of constant attention and discussion in order to make sure best possible outcomes. And by that I mean for the company, not necessarily for each individual.

Me delivering in grand style on my KPIs while my colleague fails miserably (sometimes due to lack of skill or hard work but probably at least as often due to a misjudgment of the complexity and difficulty of the task)). Goal setting is like high jump, the success of the jump depends entirely on where the bar is and as opposed to actual high jump, the bar at work can be lowered based on negotiation, manipulation or good old fashioned BS. So back to my triumph and the failure of my colleague. This may not be a great outcome for the company. Maybe it would be better if I applied an 80/20 view of my work while helping my colleague out? Just a thought.

Human glue and value of trust

Simon Sinek has a popular video floating around which describes his interaction with the Navy Seals where they talk about a graph on performance (y-axis) and trust (x-axis). Performance being performance on the battlefield and trust being performance off the battlefield, or as Charlie sheen made clear already in 1990 (in the Movie “Navy Seals”). “Trust me with your life (performance) but not your money or you wife (trust)”.

So Charlie Sheen may have been a bit of a toxic team member it seems, because if the Seals have to choose (since few people are perfect at both) they would go for lower performance and higher trust rather than the other way around. Which I would interpret as a lower level of skill can be accepted in an individual if they, for instance, will always have their comrades back. Interesting. It is not all about hitting your own KPI, it is about the team accomplishing their mission.

I’m not sure what the Seals call these people, but I usually just refer to them as human glue. You know them when you see them. No, actually you don’t. It usually takes a bit of time to recognise this trait or skill but over time you will notice. Maybe this is someone who will stop what they are doing in order to help you out, even if it comes with the cost of interruption for them. Maybe someone that is not faking an out of office to avoid you so they can deliver their own personal objectives.

Another good story around this if the Cambridge rowing team acceptance of the Canadian rower Dan O’shaughnessy. In a sport of rhythm and unison, apparently O’Shaughnessy did not have a great rowing style and was at first rejected by the coaches. Though the other members of the team then piped up and stated that they simply row better when he was around. Sounds counter intuitive, but apparently it is not all about adding 8 rowers personal performances together but about creating a team that works.

Good old human interaction

I am an introvert and can easily spend a weekend by myself, but even I am not immune to the need for social contact. Something that you do get some of at work, at least before COVID-19 hit us.

I do miss the time when I worked at Kraft foods in Zurich and we had an canteen in the building. That would mean that basically every day, we would stand up from our desks, walk to the canteen and have lunch with a few colleagues. It would offer some opportunity to talk about other things than work and get some general social contact and actually get to know our co-workers, AND we actually solved a lot of work issues as well (through some version of the “garbage-can theory” I take it).

As new team members have been on-boarded during the COVID lock-down I think it has been clear in many places that it is not easy to manage a team you never met, or to be managed by someone you never met. With limited, or completely without, social interaction most people find it hard to get to a place where there is complete trust. To be sure that your colleague has your back, you need to actually know them, talk to them and see them in action, over and over again until you can be convinced you got a grip on who they are. Only then can they be trusted with money and wife and you can be a great team member or team leader, even if you have a few skill gaps. Then you are human glue, whether you like it or not, and likely a valuable part of driving any team forward.

I am not sure this is getting any better. Having more pressure added at work, we try to cope by adding e-mail management strategies while minimizing any waste of time like having lunch with colleagues or a casual chat at the coffee machine. Less and less social interactions, less opportunity to get to know one another and subsequently less trust to go around. Add some personal incentives on top and it seems we got an environment that would keep accelerating in the same direction it is already heading.

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