With Martin G. Moore

Episode #73

Busy Work: Turning effort into value

How do you stop people from mindlessly carrying out non-value adding activity for its own sake? This problem is extremely common, and addressing it can be incredibly challenging.

As a leader, you will most likely need to do more than just work with your people on an individual basis. You will actually need to cut through your organisation’s well established cultural norms.

But busy work is hard to see, hard to challenge, and hard to replace with higher value work.

In this episode, we take a look at how to start making fundamental shifts in how your teams get work done, and how you can exponentially improve their outcomes.

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Episode #73 Busy Work: Turning effort into value

Welcome to episode 73 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode: Busy Work: Turning effort into value. This week’s episode is in response to a question from our listener, Ben. He asked, “What do you do when people are busy but are not being effective? A lot of what they do is shooting from the hip, so how can you help people to become more effective instead of just being busy all the time?” This is a great question, which cuts across a whole raft of No Bullshit Leadership content. The problem’s incredibly common, and as a leader, you’re most likely need to do more than just work with your people on an individual basis. Often you’ll actually need to cut through the organisation’s well-established cultural norms. But busy work is hard to see. It’s hard to challenge and it’s hard to replace with higher value work. In this episode, we take a look at how to start making fundamental shifts in how your teams get their work done and how you can exponentially improve what comes out the back end of any investment you make with the organisation’s scarce resources. So we’ll start by asking what is busy work? I’ll explore the link between busy work, accountability and value creation. And we’ll finish by talking about communication and why when it comes to busy work, this is everything. So let’s get into it!

I speak a lot in No Bullsh!t Leadership about value. Put simply, leaders are paid to create value and if you don’t think this is your purpose, then what is? The trick for you as a leader is to work out what constitutes value in any given context; your industry, your company, and this point in time. Value is not just about financial measures, but if you want to have a sustainable organisation, it’s at least financial measures. Value, as the centrepiece of a leader’s role is also the starting point our for online program Leadership Beyond the Theory. Now we’ve just opened registrations for our next cohort which commences on the 3rd of February. We love that you’re getting so much value from these podcasts, even if you’re only taking a few subtle points out that you could implement and change the way you lead. This is why we created Your CEO Mentor. However, if you want to take your leadership capability, confidence, and performance to the next level, then check out Leadership Beyond the Theory on the Your CEO Mentor website. This is where we see the really big changes in our leaders and this is what most obviously fulfils our purpose; to improve the quality of leaders globally.

Alright, so let’s get on with it. What’s busy work and why is it so common? I often say that one of the hardest things to do in any organisation is to stop the activity that doesn’t create value. It gets a life of its own and people protect it. People don’t necessarily understand the link between what they do day to day and what creates value for the business. And too often even the most senior leadership in the enterprise doesn’t understand this with the clarity and precision required to use their resources wisely. I suspect conservatively that if you could stop all non value adding activity and focus only on the things that drive the greatest value, you would actually get a hell of a lot more done.

In large organisations, I don’t think it’s outlandish to predict somewhere between 10% and 60% less resources and that’s money people, external services etc. to deliver exactly the same amount of value. So let’s define busy work. As the name would suggest, busy work keeps us really busy but doesn’t necessarily add value. It’s justifiable to anyone who happens to look or inquire about what’s being done. It quite often has formal authority behind it. So for example, there’s a process in an organisation that has to be adhered to. Quite often, busy work responds to a request from someone higher up. And by definition, busy work is actually low value. It also helps to avoid something else that is hard or not as much fun. And very often it’s part of a historical ‘how we do things around here’ type of activity. But the most important part of this definition of busy work is that it is not the most important or valuable thing that you could be doing. So how do you recognise it and why is it so hard to stop? Well, it’s hard to stop because it’s hard to see. Most of the time you don’t even know it’s going on! Busy work tends to hide inside complexity. So the more complicated something is, the harder it is to see which pieces of the work do and don’t add any value. One of the few ways to work out what’s happening is when you see the real value stuff not being delivered as you would expect.

Let’s start at the root of the problem. People don’t want you to see their busy work, and this can go for leaders as well as it can go for individual contributors. Let’s first talk about your people on the front line or the individual contributors. If you’re in a large organisation, this can easily extend to the first couple of layers of leadership down below. And it comes down to three things; familiarity, mastery and security. So in terms of familiarity, we get comfort from doing things over and over until we feel competent. Knowing that we can handle anything in our work environment without stretching is very comforting and we know what to expect when we come into work each day. Mastery is important because we feel good about ourselves. When we have a task nailed, regardless of the value that that task does or doesn’t create, it’s just about getting good at something to the point where we’re proficient.

And when it comes to security, this is the real kicker. If I’m really busy, then what I do is clearly needed as am I. Conversely, if the work I’m currently doing disappears, well, you might not need me now. This is not an irrational fear. Most people are working in any decent sized enterprise will have seen this. Management has form in getting rid of people when the job’s no longer required. There’s also the busy work that leaders do. Now you expect this in your people at lower pay grades. You should neither expect nor accept this from your leaders, which means you should start by thinking about what you model. You are setting the tone, the pace, and the standard for your team. For leaders, busy work is quite often simply, avoidance. Now there’s also sometimes an element of empire building, more work equals more resources equals a bigger portfolio equals I am busier and more important than the next person.

And this is why in lots of enterprises you see land grabs and political manoeuvring by many senior leaders to increase their reach and influence. Bureaucracies love this shit. Size matters. Value is secondary. And it doesn’t matter how many hollow words are put out there to talk about value creation, people know how that world works. But let’s get back to avoidance. Leaders find all sorts of creative ways to avoid the real work. So for example, it’s very easy to get caught up in task list by email. As you always have things coming into your inbox, there are always things that you can react to and do. Going to meetings you shouldn’t be at. Lots and lots of my mentoring clients have trouble extracting themselves from meetings. Everyone wants them there, and the higher up you go, the more you’re in demand because people want your imprimatur.

They don’t want to make a mistake by choosing to do something that you wouldn’t approve of. So they want you there so they can say, “Marty was in that meeting and he said it was okay!” But what are they avoiding when they’re doing these types of things? If you can fill your diary with everything else except leadership work, well that’s what you’re going to do! And as long as you’re doing busy work, you couldn’t possibly have the time to focus on the real job of a leader. How about doing the hard work of capability building? How about driving superior outcomes using the challenge coach, confront model? How about having the difficult conversations with your stakeholders? How about communicating with clarity to your people or making difficult decisions and unpopular choices? As long as you’re busy doing other stuff, you don’t need to face into these difficult things. And there’s also a cultural norm that being constantly busy and overworked is a badge of honour and the higher up you go, the harder you are supposed to work. This comes back to the old Protestant work ethic, as they call it, productivity and diligence. After all, number four on the list of the seven deadly sins is sloth

Let’s have a look at the relationship between busy work, accountability and value. This is fundamentally an execution issue. So you need to have a listen to the episode on ‘Execution for Results’ It’s episode 19 we released it almost 12 months ago, so get it at www.yourceomentor.com/episode19. But start by setting clear and ambitious targets. This starts at the work planning stage. So we’re talking about strategy, which moves through to tactics, which moves down to operational plans. But if you don’t pull non-value-add activity out at the source, it will get a life of its own. And if it never gets on the plan, it’s much less likely to get done. Conversely, if it does get on a plan, it’s almost impossible to stop. So you’ve got to think about this from the vantage point of overall organisational strategy. Now I often say that strategy is not so much about what you choose to do, but what you choose not to do.

Work programs are all about choices. So in isolation, everything might look good. Everyone’s always got a good idea for another thing you can do, but you can’t fund or resource everything. You’ve got to say no to some things. And if you’re not deliberate and explicit about what you say no to, then your people will decide on the fly. So as Ben observed in his question, there’ll be shooting from the hip.

An example that highlights this in a more finite way is the investment framework in a large enterprise. In this case, you will have multiple competing projects seeking funding. Now every sponsor thinks that their project is the most important, but the organisation has constrained resources. In other words, there’s only so much money to go around. You’re limited by the available cash, working capital, external funding sources and so forth. So a process is established to work out which initiatives are actually the most important in the overall scheme of things.

And there’s a funding envelope or limit. Someone has to be accountable for establishing which projects or initiatives get funding and which don’t. So normally there’s an investment committee set up. It’s often quite senior, .ometimes the board will even have subcommittees for a large threshold investment, but they make recommendations to the CEO or the board as to where the highest source of value is for the available investments and they seek approval. Now think about doing this in your own neck of the woods, and it doesn’t matter how small your team is, you don’t have to be a CEO looking after hundreds of millions of dollars in investment alternatives. You just need to make sure that your resources, people, materials, assets, and so forth are directed to the most valuable work. If you do this right, busy work should be easier to spot and kill.

So here’s the Moneyball. If you really want to stop busy work, you need to stretch your people further. So set really ambitious goals and stretch your people so much on the few high value objectives that they simply don’t have time to muck around with busy work. Make it really clear that they’ll need to drop some work and even ask if you can help them. What can I do to clear off your desk so you can focus on the main game? Now this actually addresses two of the drivers for people hanging on to busy work, security and mastery. People are secure knowing that there is loads of work and even better they can see that it actually is having an impact. And in terms of mastery, for most people, mastering difficult challenges is even more satisfying than mastering mundane or routine tasks. Once stretched, there need to be consequences in place for not meeting the agreed targets. So putting consequences in place for not achieving these eliminates excuses. There’s no more of this, “I was busy doing something else” style of excuse-ology, it’s all just dog ate my homework stuff at the end of the day.

Now this is just about to get hard for you because you probably know what I’m going to say. If you want to lead this, change yourself first. People don’t watch your lips, they watch your feet. And if you’re modelling the classic ‘busy work’ boss, you can forget about it. So for you, you need to understand and be really, really good at the challenge, coach, confront framework cause that’s how you’re going to stretch people. That’s how you’re going to help them to meet that stretch and it’s how you’re going to put consequences in place that say, “If you don’t, we’re going to have a problem.”

Let’s finish by having a word about communication. If you want to change your people, you need to start by changing your language, and what my boss finds interesting. I am completely fascinated by, so, stop rewarding hard work and start rewarding outcomes. Always question what’s being done and don’t take “Because we have to” as an answer to a question about why your team is working on something, especially when it’s couched in this implicit “Oh, it’s a bit technical boss you wouldn’t understand!” What do you say about the work program to your team and how do you it, what are you emphasising? “Uh, we got to get this done because it’s on the plan” or “We’re under resourced, so don’t worry, we have to do it anyway?” Or “We need to work really hard to deliver this. If you want to stop the busy work, the first step is to completely change the dialogue.

Now I’m sure you’ve heard leaders using the thin platitude, “We need to work smart, not hard” and I’m not really sure what this means even, it’s a platitude that people tend to throw in and make it feel like they’re more efficient or productive or valuable than they actually are. So it’s worthwhile making a little more tangible. Try this. “We need to work on the things that add the most value and it’s pretty straightforward, right? I’ll tell you what those things are. I’ll make sure it’s built into our work program. I’ll keep you on track to deliver it. So for example, I’ll let you know when I see you not delivering it or when I see you being distracted with other work that doesn’t add value.” Give your people explicit permission to make value choices. Obviously with some guidance and within clear boundaries. Now this can compensate for some of the insecurity that people feel when letting go of busy work.

It gives them increased autonomy and empowerment and it gives them more control of their environment. So for example, you can say to them something like, “Don’t just follow a process because it’s there.” Or “If you feel as though a task is not any value, you can drop it.” And obviously there’s rules around this. You can’t just tell people to go and do what they want and not follow processes. They have an obligation to get a leaner, better process in place if they think that can be done. Or if they dropping a task, they can only do it in agreement with their boss. But you want to give people the autonomy to know that they can change their environment. So there’s a whole raft of stuff you can do in terms of changing your communication with the people below you.

Now there’s also the problem with the people above you. Here’s where it gets hard. Conflict is often unavoidable, particularly with a board of directors that decides to push down the things that they think need to be done, and every board meeting comes up with a new fandangled idea that you have to implement. Always keeping it in perspective, pushing back and making sure you say, “Where does this rate in relation to all of the high value tasks we’ve got agreed, and the things we’re going to deliver this year? How does this rate against those? Because we can’t just keep slotting stuff in without risking the main program. Everything has a consequence and we need to decide in a very, very explicit way what we’re actually going to do. At the CEO level, you have to agree on the broad deliverables for the organisation. The key outcomes in each area of focus and your upwards communication has to make it really clear why you’re recommending certain choices for allocation of your scarce resources and what it’s going to take to deliver those.

So you’ve got to make it clear that you’re after simplicity and focus in the program. You want clarity of objectives. You want to have a very, very clear link between activity and value that can be described to anyone – a staff member, a customer, a board member. It doesn’t matter. You need to make choices so you can leverage your scarce resources. At the end of the day, you want every person that comes into contact with you above, below, and beside to know that you are driven by creating value and not mindless activity for its own sake.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 73! Thanks so much for joining us and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally, so please spread the word about No Bullsh!t Leadership in your leadership community. I’ll look forward to next week’s episode: The Curse of the Middle Manager.

Until then I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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