Productivity Wake-Up Call

By Marc J. Schiller

IT Productivity Destroyers (Part I)

WARNING: Do not read this article series if you are looking for a little brain candy that will give you a quick boost but ultimately waste your time. It won't give you what you want.

This article series is for the IT leaders, managers and professionals who seriously want to shake things up, for themselves and their organizations. It's meant for IT leaders, managers, and professionals who know in their gut that there is always a better way to do things and who are eager to learn and apply it.

So, if you consider yourself a member of this group, stick with me. Because this series is going to show you how to:

  1. Gain an extra work day for yourself without working an extra minute, and

  2. Increase your team's productivity and work satisfaction by 20 percent, 30 percent or more.

Sound ambitious? Think I'm kidding? Well, I'm dead serious. So, let's get started.

The hierarchy of organizational time-wasting activities

Organizations are inherently inefficient. It's just the way of the world.

IT professionals complain about the inefficiencies that impact personal productivity and cut into personal time. Managers become frustrated by the slow progress of their team members. As an external consultant, I often get the "pleasure" of hearing these complaints from both sides of the management divide.

Where it gets interesting is when you ask IT professionals and managers to identify and rank the causes of inefficiency and time wasting. Overall there are three big categories. They are presented below in order of time-wasting rank and degree of impact, from mild to severe.

  1. Personal time wasting: This covers items like spending too much time on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, web surfing, news reading, and so on--all under the guise that it really does relate to your job. Not surprisingly, pointing to this category is a favorite of managers. Although, with the appearance of many CIOs on Twitter, it's starting to be a problem at the leadership level as well. Degree of organizational impact: mild.

  2. Misguided efforts and energy: This category refers to all those activities that some IT managers feel are very important but, in reality, have little value except in the most limited instances. The big culprits in this category are: Email proliferation (too many cc's, too many thank you's, using Email like chat instead of actually speaking with someone); global standards initiatives; vendor briefings to "stay on top of things"; department reorganizations that produce unclear org models and even more esoteric and meaningless titles for the same people; telling stories of the days when you changed vacuum tubes and picked the bugs out of the punch cards. Degree of organizational impact: moderate.

  3. Productivity destroyers: These are the activities that are described not with a roll of the eyes, but with a furrowed brow and a shaking head of disapproval. What makes this category stand out in particular isn't the fact that it has massive impact on the individual and the organization (which it does) but rather that there is nearly 100 percent agreement between managers and professionals on the biggest culprit. And the winner is: MEETINGS! Yup. Almost everyone (at least in the IT world) believes that the biggest personal and organizational productivity destroyer is the abundance of meetings they have to attend. Degree of organizational impact: severe.

Here we have an essential business activity that nearly everyone in IT feels is a major drain on productivity and progress. For years I ignored this observation. I chalked up complaints about people doing Email during meetings to bad etiquette. Statements about poor planning and agenda management, I figured, were about political rivalry or attributable to the fact that they were unfairly comparing my highly prepared workshops and seminars (which have to sparkle with sexy, multimedia presentations, studies, and data so that I can get paid) to the rest of their "normal" work day.

Productivity Wake-Up Call

A few years ago I landed a venture capital (VC) firm as a client and I got a huge wake-up call. All of a sudden, I was in close contact with a different industry with a different mindset and different business practices. The biggest difference between the worlds of VCs and IT? Their attitude towards, and handling of, meetings.

For a VC, meetings (with entrepreneurs, investors, analysts, bankers, etc.) are a core competency. They don't have to deliver systems or provide tech support. What they have to do is find, process, oversee and sell companies. And that takes a ton of meetings. Meeting inefficiency isn't just a productivity killer, it has the potential to destroy the firm. They know this and live it deep in their bones. (At least the guys that I worked for did.) The very best illustration I have of this is the seven-minute triage meeting.

The seven-minute triage meeting

Ask any entrepreneur how much time they would like to pitch their company to the VC. They are likely to say 60 minutes to 90 minutes. They are eager to cover all the ins and outs of their company and why it will be a winning investment.

Now, look at things from the perspective of the VC, who needs to meet with lots of entrepreneurs in order to find the one or two they are going to back. The particular firm I worked with funded about one out of every 150 companies that pitched them--two or three new investments per year. Using their numbers, that would require meeting with about 450 entrepreneurs. And if every one of them were given 90 minutes, it would result in 675 hours of initial pitch meeting time. Their solution? The seven-minute triage meeting.

Once a week, several hours were set aside to meet with entrepreneurs. Each entrepreneur was told they had seven minutes to give their pitch to the partners and to answer one or two key questions. Their thinking was pretty simple. If the entrepreneur couldn't make a convincing case for the value proposition of the company in seven minutes, there wasn't much point going any further. The sole purpose for the meeting was to determine whether or not the company merited a closer look. Super focused. Super disciplined.

It didn't stop there

The seven-minute pitch is just one example. This discipline around fixed meeting times extended to a number of other common business processes where they had figured out the appropriate scope and time boundaries for the meeting to keep it focused and to direct follow-up activity.

A personal example. One of my first assignments was to present an overview of the competitive landscape for one of their portfolio companies. I had in mind a detailed analysis and presentation. However, I was told that at this stage all that they wanted was a 20-minute overview of the players with their key strengths and weaknesses.

It focused me. It saved me time. And, it saved them money. I was hooked.

When I first encountered this approach, I figured it would produce a lot of stress and resentment as people (myself included) were forced to fit into a tight time slot. In fact, I observed nearly the exact opposite response.

In place of stress, the highly focused agenda, framework and time constraint produced a sense of calm. People were very clear on what the meeting was about and what they needed to do--before, during and after the meeting. Not only were the attendees well prepared, but there were few complaints about all the meetings.

It's not just a time box

When I first shared my experience with my IT clients and told them that I wanted to implement a similar sort of system for IT, they thought I was crazy. Their immediate response: How could they possibly do anything in seven minutes?

It's a natural response, but it completely misses the point about what it is that makes the seven-minute triage meeting (or others like it) work. It's not just a time box. It's a defined business process expressed in a set of goals, executed in an agenda, and contained within an appropriate time frame.

My IT clients were hearing, "have short meetings." But what I was trying to say was, "get your meetings into a tight, well-focused, framework, like those VC guys do, and your meetings will be productive and brief."

The essential point and the big question

After a bit of trial and error, a winning approach emerged. It's founded on one very basic idea with which nearly every IT professional and manager can agree: Meetings with very focused goals and objectives, controlled by the right agenda, have the potential to be wrapped in a tight time frame. The only remaining question: How to realize that potential across IT without creating some wacky meeting definition project?

Is that it?

No, of course not. But since good articles, like good meetings, need to live within strict parameters, that's exactly where I will pick up later this week with Part II. In the meantime, consider how you might apply the VC approach to your meeting schedule. You'll be shocked at what you will uncover on your own.

About the Author

Marc J. Schiller, author of "The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders," is a speaker, strategic facilitator, and an advisor on the implementation of influential analytics. He splits his time between the front lines of client work and evangelizing to IT leaders and professionals about what it takes to achieve influence, respect and career success. Download a free excerpt of his book at http://11secretsforitleaders.com

This article was originally published on 11-14-2011