Get back up above the line

There is an unmistakable feeling of busyness out there in the workplace at the moment. Workers, leaders and teams feeling like they have never been so busy, but even with all of this activity, sometimes struggling to have an impact.  

My friend Matt Church put me onto a book a couple of years ago called The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman and Kaley Warner Klemp. One of the concepts that I loved in the book was the idea of leaders either working above or below the line. This is now a concept that is widely talked about in leadership circles and is sometimes called ‘line theory’.  

I think line theory has an application when it comes to our productivity. I reckon that when we are doing our day-to-day work, we are either working above the line on the things that have the most impact, or being caught below the line, working on things that make us busy, but less impactful. Our ability to stay above the line as much as possible has a direct link to the outcomes we achieve in our role. But it is not easy to stay above the line, as there are many things, many people and many forces that work against our best-laid plans, dragging us down below the line into busyness. 

A part of your role, especially if you are a leader, is to monitor where you are spending your time, energy and focus, and when you catch yourself working below the line, to do something about it. Here are five strategies that you could apply to deal with work that is dragging you below the line: 

Shift it – Give it away 

Sometimes we allow work to land on our plate that should be done, but not by us. We need to be ruthless in delegating the tasks, or the part of the task that could or should be done by others. Delegation is a powerful but sometimes underused tool for many leaders. 

Shrink it – Make it smaller 

Some work needs your input but feels big and hard and time consuming. But sometimes we are the ones that make it bigger, and harder, and more time consuming than it needs to be. Rather than procrastinating about something that feels like it requires a couple of dedicated hours of your time that you do not have, could the task be made smaller, and completed in 30-minutes? Would 30-minutes of your effort be enough to deliver a ‘good enough’ outcome? Possibly. I know that I would usually prefer something that was good enough delivered before the deadline, than something perfect a week late! 

Simplify it – Make it easier 

Is some of the work we get caught up in just too complex? Do we have overly complex processes in our team, that again lead us to procrastinate and feel overloaded too much of the time? What could be simplified in our roles? What are the things that we often get stuck on? Doing a review of this for yourself, and for your team can be a great way to get everyone back above the line.  

Suspend it – Pause it temporarily 

We all have certain times of increased workload and pressure. We have major deadlines, or times of the quarter or year that demand more of our time, energy and focus. These are the times where we need to take some of the pressure off by suspending non-critical activities until our deadline has passed, or the pressure is off. I often use the first day of the month as a place to reschedule tasks that I cannot think about this month, but want to ensure do not get entirely forgotten. This is a suspend strategy.  

Stop it – End it permanently 

Finally, are there things that you are doing that drag you down below the line, that you should stop altogether? It is definitely worth having a long, hard look at what you are spending your time on, and asking yourself what you could stop doing. This may require some negotiation with your line manager, but there may be reports, meetings or activities that just don’t add the value that they used to, but still consume resources. Every year we should be culling old, unnecessary activities like a snake shedding its skin! 

I find this idea of above and below the line a simple framework to help to keep me focused on what has most impact in my role. I try to step outside of myself at regular intervals to look at what I am spending my time, energy and focus on with an objective eye, and I regularly try to shift, shrink, simplify, suspend or stop anything that is below the line. How about you?    

The two unspoken productivity killers

I was asked to be a guest on the ABC Melbourne radio show The Conversation Hour last week. This was off the back of a video blog done by the ABC finance presenter Alan Kohler on productivity growth. He talked about the fact that productivity growth has been declining in Australia for decades. This was highlighted in a recent report delivered to government by the Productivity Commission.

His main point was that this report outlined many causes of this decline in productivity growth, but it failed to mention two key causes that dramatically impact productivity in the corporate workplace – emails and meetings.

This is so true. Now I know that the government looks at productivity from a macro-perspective, and they are not just looking at corporate, knowledge worker workplaces. They are looking at the things like unit labour costs in the manufacturing sector, compared to the output achieved. But you cannot ignore the massive impact on productivity experienced by millions of workers every week when they are faced with a deluge of emails and a constant stream of back-to-back meetings.

I passionately believe this is an issue that every leader needs to address for their teams. If every leader could reduce the volume of email noise their team was expected to deal with and reduced the amount of time they had to spend in ineffective meetings, productivity has to increase. That is not to say that emails or meetings are a bad thing. They are tools that need to be used in a purposeful and mindful way.

So, have a think about what you could do to reduce email noise and meeting ineffectiveness for your team. They will thank you for it, and the whole country will see a benefit! How cool is that?

Personal and group productivity – the key to highly productive teams

Watching the Olympics is a lovely distraction at the moment, and as always, I am amazed about how passionate I become about sports that I have never even watched before. As long as there is an Aussie competing, I am all in!

It is amazing to watch some of the team events, and to see extremely talented individuals compete. Of course, the teams that tend to win gold are not just a bunch of talented individuals. They also work together as a highly effective group. That leads me to believe that effectiveness in the team sporting context is individual performance and group performance combined.

The same is true when it comes to productivity in your workplace. It is not enough to have individuals that are personally productive. You also need them to be group productive.

If one person in a team attends our Smart Work personal productivity training, that makes that individual more productive. If the whole team attends Smart Work, then the whole team works more productively at the personal level.

This is a great start, but the challenge can be that even though they are managing their own work effectively, they can be causing productivity friction for each other whenever they send emails, have meetings, collaborate or make urgent requests. For a team to reach high levels of sustained productivity, they also need to become group productive. They need to ensure that they work in a way that does not compromise the productivity of others.

This is what we focus on when we run our Smart Teams programs. We help teams to work together in a way that supports productivity, and ideally, creates a more productive culture within the team. When you have every team member working more productively at the personal and the group level, you create massive productivity gains that can be sustained over time.

Is your team both personally and group productive?

How not to interrupt Bob Geldof

The moment I met Bob Geldof was not as cool as it should have been, and it was my own fault. It was 1993, and I was backpacking my way around Australia. I ended up in Mildura picking grapes, and to my surprise, heard that Bob Geldof was coming to town.

He’d been through a few years of Band Aid and Live Aid associated advocacy work and was wanting to get back to his music. Rather than book a capital city tour of Australia, he decided to tour small rural towns with his new band.

So, being a fellow Dubliner, I bought tickets and went along with my mates. It was a great gig, and he played all the classics. Now many of you would know I don’t like Mondays, the 1979 hit he had with the Boomtown Rats. But in Ireland they’d had many other hits and were considered a real influence in the punk movement of the late seventies around England and Ireland.

We were in the bar after the gig and who do we see but Sir Bob lining up for a drink. We headed over to try to get a moment with the man himself. We cautiously approached and said, ‘Hi Bob, we’re from Dublin too, can we ask you a question?’ He graciously replied, ‘Howya lads, no problem. What do you want to ask me?’

Bloody hell, I had not expected that he’d actually talk to us. I think the silicon chip inside my head got switched to overload! (See what I did there). I desperately tried to think of something profound to ask. Or at least intelligible. But that was not to be. Remembering back to a story he told on stage about picking peas when he was younger, I blurted out ‘So Bob, did you really pick peas? Frozen peas or canned peas?’

I nearly died inside as I saw his eyes glaze over, realising he was dealing with another drunk Irishman who could not form an intelligent question. He was used to dealing with presidents, queens and rock stars, who I assume did not ask him about peas! He promptly excused himself and our moment had passed.

In the workplace, I wonder how often we disappoint others with unprepared interruptions and half-baked thoughts and questions? I reckon that most of the time when we interrupt our managers and colleagues, we are not maximising our opportunity and minimising the distraction for them.

This is especially problematic when interrupting senior managers who are almost always going to more time-poor than others. Interruptions are a part of life in a busy organisation and can be a huge frustration. But if we are purposeful with our interruptions, the people we are interrupting will value the interruption rather than get frustrated. Busy people will always have time for those who don’t waste their time.

Here are some strategies to ensure your interruptions are productive:

  • If you ask for a minute, take a minute, not twenty
  • Read their body language and be mindful if it feels like it’s not the best time to interrupt
  • Know the question you need to ask. Be clear about what you are asking and be succinct in asking it
  • Give them context, but not too much. Don’t overwhelm them with background or your life story
  • Don’t make them do the work. If it’s an issue that you need a solution for, provide some recommended solutions, rather than asking them to give you the answer
  • Don’t ask them about picking peas!

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