Great Story: A Manager’s Function

I recently re-read a fantastic book “Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams” by Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister.

The book is filled with hard-won wisdom about executing projects and managing people for highest productivity.

Here is a real-life story from the book that underlines importance of the “human aspect” of our work; especially creative work that requires significant emotional involvement too.

In my early years as a developer, I was privileged to work on a project managed by Sharon Weinberg, now president of the Codd and Date Consulting Group. She was a walking example of much of what I now think of as enlightened management. One snowy day, I dragged myself out of a sickbed to pull together our shaky system for a user demo. Sharon came in and found me propped up at the console. She disappeared and came back a few minutes later with a container of soup. After she’d poured it into me and buoyed up my spirits, I asked her how she found time for such things with all the management work she had to do. She gave me her patented grin and said, Tom, this is management.”

Sharon knew what all good instinctive managers know: The manager’s function is not to make people work, but to make it possible for people to work.

Peopleware was first published some 25 years ago, and updated once since then. With such remarkable wisdom available to us, it is unfortunate to see many organizations and leaders still not getting the very essence of leading a knowledge-oriented and creative enterprise. Either they don’t read enough (which is dangerous) or they don’t practice what they already know.

It is all about people. As the book nicely puts it,

“The major problems of our work are not so much technological as sociological in nature.”

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Productivity Reminders…

… For Managers

  1. In knowledge world, productivity is hard to quantify. If you try to adopt old “command and control” style of management to drive knowledge workers, they get even less productive. Don’t command, empower. Don’t control, but lead them instead.
  2. Understand that knowledge workers cannot always be productive between 9 to 5. They have their creative zones and routines when they are most productive. Give them a mental space, when they can concentrate.
  3. Equate productivity, not with how much work is done, but how well.
  4. Give them autonomy and challenge them through work. Clarify what is expected out of them and set them free. Facilitate and support, but don’t spoon feed and micro-manage. Enrich their job by allowing them to focus on the core aspect of their work. Eliminate waste from their routines. Define what performance means.
  5. Provide them constant feedback. Feedback is the compass they use to drive their performance. Recognize their efforts.

… For Individuals

  1. “Busy-ness” is not equal to progress. Passing/pushing papers, constantly responding to emails, constantly checking social media and attending endless meetings is NOT productivity.
  2. Understand the context. You can work better when the bigger picture is clear to you. Understand clearly what needs to be done, why it needs to be done and then figure out how it needs to be done.
  3. It also means identifying what should *not* be done. Eliminate busy work and additional activities that add no or little value. E.g. A sales person should focus on sales/customer service more than she focuses on filling out reports and doing logistical activities involved in sales.
  4. When working, be ‘with’ work. Social media can wait. That new email notification screaming for your attention can wait. Other low priority items can wait. Multi-tasking kills concentration – one of the key elements of personal productivity.
  5. Learn continuously – the more you learn, the more you know, the more productive you get. Seek training, read blogs (better yet, write one), read at least one book in your area of work in a month, meet people, attend conferences/webinars. Learn.

In his book “Managing For The Future (1992)”, Peter Drucker said that raising productivity of knowledge and service workers must be an economic and social priority in twenty first century. Almost twenty years after that was written, it is a truth that we cannot afford to ignore.

Being productive at work is not just an organizational, economic or social priority, but a personal one too.

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Related Post at QAspire: Getting Work Done: Flow and Distractions

Getting Work Done: Flow and Distractions

Across the web, I have recently read articles/posts that underline an important thing – technology is taking a toll on our productivity and is keeping us from doing work that really matters – that is, if we allow.

I have seen both sides of the coin. I often get into a state when my work seemed to be just flowing and I never realized that I was doing the “work”. Things got done, time just flew, priorities accomplished, progress happened and a sense of satisfaction prevailed.

On the other side, I have been a victim of technology as well. Times when I got so distracted by my urge to “check” things – mails, social media comments, short message on my cell etc. – that it kept me from accomplishing what I had planned. I dread such days.

Tony Schwartz calls this phenomenon as “Personal Energy Crisis”. He observes,

“Human beings aren’t designed to run like computers: at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time. By mimicking them, they’re ending up running us.

This post also throws some light on the fact that modern organizations cannot build competitive advantage by just asking people to do more. Read on for more insights.

In his recent post “Are You Making Something”, Seth Godin observes,

One reason for this confusion is that we’re often using precisely the same device to do our work as we are to distract ourselves from our work.

This one is so true – our worlds (personal and professional) converge on devices we use. I recently saw an advertisement of a 3G service which says “Mix your worlds”. I am not sure if mixing our worlds would help us stay more productive and efficient!

Bottom line:

There are no silver bullets when it comes to personal productivity. Staying connected with world is as important as accomplishing meaningful work. The key is to strike the right balance. It is only when you spend quality time with your work that you can deliver quality in your work.

Join in the conversation:

How do you strike a balance between the urge to “check/stay informed” and the need to get important work done? What personal productivity rituals worked for you?

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BONUS: Read this excellent post by Tony Schwartz on Harvard Business Review, titled “Six Keys To Be Excellent at Anything

On Leadership and Dealing with Comfortable Inaction

John F. Kennedy said this (one of my favorite quotes) –

“There are risks and costs to a program of actions. But they are far less than the long range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”

Comfortable inaction is the state where the immediate implication of not doing something is not visible, but in a longer run, it takes a toll. Comfortable inaction (specially by people at leadership positions) can be a real plague to the organization’s growth. Here are a few examples of how people use comfortable inaction at work:

  • They don’t disagree with your proposition, but do nothing about it.
  • They strongly agree with the proposition, but still do nothing about it.
  • They do things, but only in small discrete bits which never completes.
  • They predict the failure of the initiative before it starts, and then wait for it to fail.
  • They would pose something else as a reason for not doing what is needed now.
  • Sometimes, they won’t do it and won’t even bother to give any reasons.
  • They would work overtime to preserve the status quo.
  • They spend more time communicating problems, than solving them.
  • They spend a lot of time in planning, speculating the outcome and analyzing.
  • They don’t confront the real problem, but try to work the way around the problem.

You get the point. When things don’t get done, when real work doesn’t happen, when problems keep growing, organization pays a huge price. It could be a lost deal, increased cost due to delays or decreased productivity. But there is always a price to be paid for comfortable inaction.

Bottom line

Leaders (and professionals) are judged by results they produce – and hence they need to remain conscious about comfortable inaction in/around them. Equally crucial is to deal with it. Further, how comfortable inaction is dealt with tells a lot about leadership and culture of an organization.

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Here’s another quote that inspires us to act: “We have a ‘strategic’ plan. It’s called doing things.” — Herb Kelleher

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Article Series on Quality – A Round-Up

As announced earlier, I am writing a very exciting series of articles on QUALITY over at – it is a 12-part series that touches upon some of the most critical aspects of building a quality-centric organization culture. Here is a list of articles already posted so far, in case you have not read them.

I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. The beauty of this series was that I came to realise the power of focused and theme-based writing. It can be a great tool to focus your thinking on a subject and collate that with your own experiences.

More with less v/s More on less.

Multiple priorities and too many task on your task list throws you off the gear at times. I am passing through one such time where there is too much on my plate and focus keeps shifting between macro and micro level tasks. While all gets done, the key point here is – “Is it effective?” – and the answer is a resounding “No”.

In this context, I recently enjoyed Lisa Haneberg’s Fireside Chat with Michael Kanazawa where they talk about doing more with less v/s. doing more on less to bring about organizational break throughs. While you can listen to the podcast here, the essence is that in troubled times, companies attempt to do more with less number of resources and optimize. In most cases, this is counter-productive. Doing more with less is a bad idea. Focus instead should be doing more on less – more efforts, more focus and more resources on less number of critical priorities that make a big difference.

On the same lines, Robin Sharma over at his blog says “Less is More” – where the central idea is the same. The person who does too much accomplishes little. The most effective people in business (and life) have the discipline (and brilliance) to focus on doing just a few things spectacularly well.

There are times when business needs us to do more – and thats perfectly fine as long as it is not a routine thing. For me, doing more is only the need of this hour – but I will remember the fact that on a longer haul, success largely depends on taking up a few key initiatives and then committing your 200% to those few things. More on less, as they say!