Benchmarking Productivity

By Allan Alter  |  Posted 05-15-2007

Ditch Your Blackberry?

In today's overworked, overachieving world, David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Viking, 288 pages; $24.95), has developed a large following for his approach to personal productivity improvement. The Ojai, Calif., author, speaker and coach provides a system for organizing all one's tasks, projects and personal goals into a closed-loop workflow. Allen's methodology promises to help people manage their workloads and accomplish more, partly by easing their anxiety about the scores of items on their to-do lists.

Information technology also promises to boost personal productivity, of course—PDAs can be a great place to keep to-do lists. But Allen is a tough critic of the way people use personal technology. Yes, IT helps people connect, he says, but it often adds more stress than it alleviates. E-mail, instant messaging, blogs and knowledge bases speed up the flow of information, but they do nothing to help people decide what to do with that information, or who is accountable for acting on it. And while PDAs and digital organizers can be useful for people who start out well organized, they do little for those who don't. In fact, he told CIO Insight Executive Editor Allan Alter, some of the technologists who operate Second Life's virtual world rely on 3 by 5 cards to keep themselves organized via his methods.

An edited version of the interview follows.

CIO Insight: Companies have spent billions of dollars on personal technologies like PDAs, BlackBerries, cell phones and organizers. After all this money, are we more productive than before?

Allen: Yes and no. On one level, you have a lot more opportunities to get more done with fewer resources. To say the computer hasn't improved productivity would be like saying the telephone hasn't improved productivity.

I can tell you that if you took all my technology, my productivity would crash and burn. But in a way, both the computer and telephone are two-edged swords. If you are unproductive to begin with, technology will add something else you are unproductive about. If you are highly productive, you can certainly use technology to facilitate work.

What I've researched are the fundamental thought processes and behaviors required for productive behavior. The computer, for the most part, does not facilitate that. What it does is speed up the input coming to you that you need to make decisions about, and it facilitates, once you've made the decision, the ability to distribute that information or conclusions in very elegant and rapid ways. But when it comes to the decision-making process, I don't care how good it is: The computer is not going to tell you whether to call Fred or draft the e-mail. You still have to do that.

Do people think if they spend money on technology, they'll automatically be more productive? Or do people understand they have to change their behavior, too?

Most people don't yet understand that they need to change their behaviors. There's still the old idea that if we speed things up, everybody's going to be more productive. Speeding things up doesn't mean things are going to get better. The faster my laptop gets, the longer it still takes to boot up because there's more stuff in it. It's kind of funny how that works.

Take a CIO who now has to deal with virtual teams, and has a project manager in Boston whose team is in India. Obviously, that couldn't even happen if you weren't connected technologically. But we still need to sit down with each other and grapple with basic behaviors: Who's accountable? Who's doing what? What are the outputs we've agreed upon, and the actual steps that need to be taken to move toward them? Those do not show up self-defined.

Sometimes, productivity will go down simply because you lose perspective. Back when you had to sit down and write a letter, letters tended to be a little more elegant and take a higher perspective, compared to e-mails shot back and forth in the heat of the moment. That doesn't mean a quick e-mail or instant message is a bad thing. What it does mean is when you are down in the weeds all the time, you often lack that larger perspective. You need to back off and say, Wait a minute, what are we really trying to accomplish? What people do we need to have in this conversation?

People often ask me what's new about stress and productivity? I say there's nothing really new except how frequently everything is new. The biggest problem with a lot of the technological tools out there is they're fine until you get the exception.

It would be tough enough if you were only doing one project, but everybody has ten big projects now. You start moving on one, and suddenly the client changes its mind, you have to go back to the farm, regroup totally, and refocus your team. Technology, to a large degree, just adds to the complexity. It does not offer a solution unless you know how to thread through all those changes and stay focused on critical outcomes. There's no technology that can facilitate that.

Benchmarking Productivity

Benchmarking Productivity

Imagine you are the CIO of a global company. The CEO has just called you in and said, "I don't want you to be just the CIO, I want you to be the chief productivity officer." What do you do in your first year on the job?

The first thing I'd do—I'd fire right back at the CEO and say, "Thank you, what a great opportunity! How will you know when I've done a good job?" What I do next depends on the CEO's answer. Productivity could mean a lot of things to the CEO. It could be you've stopped staff turnover.

It could be the bottom line, the equation between resources required and profitability gained. From my perspective—and it's somewhat limited because I've been more focused on the human equation and not Lean Manufacturing, TQM [Total Quality Management] and Six Sigma—if you want to get things done, there are several questions you have to answer. What does "done" mean? What does "doing" look like, and where does it happen? The late Peter Drucker said, "The biggest challenge all knowledge workers have is to define their work." Technology doesn't do that.

If the CEO said, "We need to increase worker productivity," I would say, "Great! Let's start with all the individuals in the organization to make sure there are no leaks in their own personal systems," because what you don't want to do is add leaky ships to a leaky fleet. That's not going to help. It could be that everybody is as efficient as they can be, in which case, if things are falling through the cracks, you're understaffed. But the truth is, most people have huge improvement opportunities just in terms of their own focus, personal systems and behaviors.

Realistically, what can a CIO do to change personal behavior on a mass scale?

You can start to impact a culture when you start to deliver a message about productivity and create productive behaviors. Those two questions—what's the outcome and what's the action step—are ultimately the knowledge-work thinking process. What are we trying to accomplish in this meeting? By what time? When you end the discussion, what's the next action, and who's going to do it? If an organization starts to ask those questions with that kind of rigor, I guarantee it will increase productivity. Again, the computer doesn't do that for you.

How can work groups improve personal productivity so members can work more effectively together?

First of all, they need to clarify ownership. Who owns the output of that work group? That's often the problem with collaboration and collaborative project management software. All the Web 2.0 kind of stuff assumes that somebody is minding the store. But if nobody owns this thing, then you never know how much detail you need to track; no one has clout to ensure that everybody keeps to the protocols of inputting all that stuff. Once someone says, "I have this project," then that person can say, "Here are the kinds of tools I want to use," and set them up to track deliverables and accountability.

Technology cannot take into consideration all the subtleties of collaboration. There's a basic communication principle that says the more complex and sophisticated the issue, the broader the bandwidth required. In other words, if you're trying to renegotiate 14 big projects and the CEO just threw you another one, you need to understand what all these people have on their plates and how the new project shifts priorities, almost on an hour-by-hour basis. That requires huge amounts of awareness, skill and ownership. The technology doesn't help with that; you still must have somebody responsible to manage things with that kind of complexity. The biggest issue with collaboration technology is that people tend to make it overly complex, thinking it's going to make work simpler, but the truth is, you have to make technology as simple as possible with as few moving parts as you can get by with, in order to leave lots of room for flexibility as things change.

My own CIO has a coffee shop meeting with the tech team once a week. Even though we have good collaborative tracking in terms of the projects, and my CIO has designed his own customized, shared database inside Lotus Notes so everybody can keep track of what projects are out there and who's doing what, they still have to have that face-to-face meeting.

Web 2

.0: Information Overload?">Web 2.0: Information Overload?

So how can an organization exploit Web 2.0 technologies like blogs, wikis and social networking to improve personal and organizational productivity?

I'm not kidding—one of the best ways is to turn those things off. I am always curious as to why people have time to blog to begin with. I understand there's a lot of value to the information in these things, but what do we do with that information? The great hope of a lot of technology is the ability to glean best practices and share them efficiently so people aren't reinventing the wheel. But I have probably thrown away more Lotus Notes databases than we have staff simply because what you think is the way you want to slice and dice information can morph very rapidly.

I've seen a lot of Web 2.0 stuff out there and a lot of it is making assumptions about what kind of data you think is going to be important to you. That's a slippery slope. People assume their organization wanted a certain kind of information; then the organization changed but the package didn't. Now, they need a whole different way to slice and dice information. Or, some of that information turned out to be a lot more relevant than other [parts of it], and they've essentially lost their investment. In our case, we invested heavily in front-end software development tools so my staff could build and own our own code from the beginning, and keep changing it as our business changed. That's worked extremely well for us.

People have often talked about information overload and technology's role in information overload. That's a lot of what the new 2.0 stuff is about: Let's create some virtual world out there with a big machine in the sky that, no matter where we are, we can then use and not be limited by XYZ. My point of view is that the problem isn't information overload. If that were the case, you'd walk into a library and die. The problem is potential-meaning overload. That is, I've got things that might mean something to me, and if I don't sit down and train myself to define that meaning quickly and easily, and have a place to park the results of that decision-making, that creates the sense of being overwhelmed and out of control. That's why I come back to defining the meaning of this to me.

What personal technology do you and others in your organization use, in addition to Lotus Notes?

A lot of us used Palms before, but I now have six people who need to access my schedule, so almost kicking and screaming I had to move to Notes myself from the Palm Desktop application. So I use that, and a lot of us sync that to Trios or other PDAs.

I think good project planning and collaborative-thinking tools are important. We also use the Office suite; Word and Excel are fairly standard commodities. We don't use BlackBerries. I think a lot of Blackberry usage is out there because people don't process their e-mails. Most of us at my company keep our backlog of unprocessed messages pretty clean. When you do that, you don't necessarily need to see e-mails but once a day.

Have you seen any technology advances that have the potential to improve personal productivity significantly?

No, I haven't seen any. I keep looking. Most of the new technology is just classier, sexier ways to slice and dice information or speed things up. It has nothing to do with facilitating the thinking process or getting us to engage in more productive behaviors.

What have you learned in the past couple of years that you will talk about in your next book, due out in 2008?

The two aspects of self-management: control and perspective. Most people try to attack one or the other, but you have to have this perfect marriage between the two. I need to get control of my situation so I can have breathing room and the ability to get perspective, but I also then need to work on getting the right perspective.

Those are two very different dynamics, but you need both. The truth is, if you get out of control, it's impossible to have perspective, and if you don't have the appropriate perspective, you will lose control. You have to have that sort of master and commander thing going, that middle edge that says, I need to keep the eye on the prize, but I still need to be able to shift my horizon down.