10 myths about productivity

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Yes, another guest post from my Turbine blog. It’s still me, though!

When it comes to productivity, a lot of people think a lot of crazy things. Some of these crazy people are managers in big companies. Others are, well, you and me. In many cases these foolish ideas have been comprehensively debunked by research.

Anyhow, here are a few of the most pervasive myths. I think I still half-believe some of them myself:

  • Adding more people will help. Adding more people to a late project will make it later. This is the fundamental lesson from Fred Brooks’s book The Mythical Man-Month. Why? The more people, the more communication. The more communication, the less work. One of the things he advises is that if you can buy software ‘off the shelf’ rather than develop it, do so. It’s usually cheaper to adapt the organisation to the software than vice versa. Certainly this is our thinking with Turbine*.
  • Measuring inputs is the same as achieving outputs. Managers love metrics and it’s a lot easier to quantify the number of hours someone works than to measure the quantity, quality and value of their output. This is why most people get paid by the hour or by the day. What gets measured gets done. So if you pay for inputs, you’ll get lots of inputs. The big insight I had when I started my other business, Articulate Marketing, was to charge for copywriting on a per-word rather than a per-day basis. In other words, I charge by results not effort. It’s a big incentive for me to be more productive  but it’s also much more transparent and measurable for my clients.
  • A kick in the ass will help. Fredrik Herzberg nailed this myth decades ago in his Harvard Business Review classic, One more time, how do you motivate employees. This is really a must-read article. The point is that what pisses employees off is not the same as the stuff that motivates them. So focus on that: self-direction, responsibility, recognition, development, progress, respect. It’s self-evident, really. Would you work harder for a boss who just berated you all the time and told you to work harder or a boss who understood your abilities and helped you be your best?
  • Incentives help. Will people work harder if you promise them a bonus for timely deliver? Probably not. Or at least, it needs to be a big enough number (>25% of salary, typically) to incentivise people to work longer hours which (see above) is not the same as being more productive. The flip side is that once someone realises that they’re not going to make the deadline and get the bonus, you’ve effectively disincentivised that person to the value of the bonus they won’t get any more.
  • Meetings are the same as work. Sometimes you need to get consensus, coordinate action, reach collective decisions and share information. So meetings look like a good way to do this. But in truth they’re usually not. Actually, because of phenomena like risky shift, you can end up with worse results from a meeting than otherwise. Or you end up doing what the boss says anyway. Or you do your email and don’t listen to what other people are saying.
  • Busy is the same as productive. I could spend the whole day reading Twitter and blog posts. I’m definitely busy but I’m not productive. The same understanding extends to all kinds of office activities. It’s about doing the right thing and not just doing things right.
  • Buzzy is busy. Noisy, open-plan offices undermine productivity. It’s very hard to concentrate with too much background noise. Interruptions destroy focus. Buzzy is great in a restaurant or bar but there’s a reason they don’t let people talk in libraries. Peopleware has great data about the value of quiet rooms, noise reduction and eliminating interruptions.
  • Buying a book will help. There are some interesting books on productivity, including Getting Things Done and Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for individuals and Peopleware for businesses. However, just buying and reading the books isn’t enough. You have to test the ideas to see if they work for you. Don’t take a self-proclaimed guru’s’ word for it. Or mine.
  • You can run a business in four hours a week. I can’t even run my blogs in four hours a week. Tim Ferriss popularised some useful ideas like personal outsourcing and an idiosyncratic version of the Lean Startup (which I found much more useful). But at the end of the day, you’re kidding yourself if you think you can run a successful business in four hours. 40 perhaps. Like many ‘gurus’, I’m sure he makes more money preaching than practising and I’m not envious of his publishing success. At all. No. Not me.

* One of the inspirations behind Turbine was spending a month in a client’s office where they had a team of expensive programmers and consultants implementing an in-house HR system. My ambition for Turbine was to give companies the same capabilities at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Obviously, here at Turbine, we believe that automating routine paperwork can help make people more productive. By reducing the amount of time spent on pointless paperwork, we automatically liberate people to do something more fruitful.

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4 Responses to 10 myths about productivity

  1. Ben Locker November 4, 2011 at 8:45 am #

    Couldn’t agree more with your point about meetings. When I worked in larger organisations, there was a tendency for meetings to become the actual work – rather than the stuff you were really supposed to be doing. I think people tend to mix up consensus with the idea that everyone should have a say about every detail of something – that just paralyses things.

    • Matthew Stibbe November 4, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

      The economic cost of meetings is not just the cost of time as measured by people’s salary, it’s the opportunity cost of all the things people could be doing if they weren’t sat there. I read this yesterday and I think it makes the point very well.

      Here is a brief sketch of the economic proposition. If you’re a good hacker in your mid twenties, you can get a job paying about $80,000 per year. So on average such a hacker must be able to do at least $80,000 worth of work per year for the company just to break even. You could probably work twice as many hours as a corporate employee, and if you focus you can probably get three times as much done in an hour. [1] You should get another multiple of two, at least, by eliminating the drag of the pointy-haired middle manager who would be your boss in a big company. Then there is one more multiple: how much smarter are you than your job description expects you to be? Suppose another multiple of three. Combine all these multipliers, and I’m claiming you could be 36 times more productive than you’re expected to be in a random corporate job. [2] If a fairly good hacker is worth $80,000 a year at a big company, then a smart hacker working very hard without any corporate bullshit to slow him down should be able to do work worth about $3 million a year.

      Source: http://paulgraham.com/wealth.html

  2. Scottish Mum January 8, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    This made me chuckle. Especially about the not even running your blogs in 4 hours a week. I hear you on that one.

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