More posts on leadership can be found here.

I'm going to venture an estimate. I'm thinking that I've wasted somewhere around 75% of my employers' time on average during my career. My entry-level jobs were not so bad. Working the phones meant that I was actually doing something, albeit low-value, most of the day. But as I progressed from task-taker, to individual contributor, to positions of influence and leadership, the amount of my time wasted increased to include, well, most of it.

"Matt, you're telling the world that you're a drain on your employers!" No, I'm not. I've always delivered value many times greater than the cost of my employment. What I'm saying is that I've had to do it in about 25% of the time allotted. The other 75% of my time went to things that were not just unproductive, they were disproductive. They were worse than doing nothing because they caused stress, wasted time and money, and impacted worthwhile activities. Here are some of those things that caused disproductivity:

Spinning up disproductive projects. I'd say that, on average, four out of five IT projects that have hit my radar have had no potential to be completed. Some reasons for this are:

  • They were knee-jerk, "Yes" reactions to an executive whim.
  • They were committed to before costs and duration were understood.
  • They were legitimate projects, but they didn't survive subsequent waves of prioritization.
  • They seemed important at the time, but the stakeholders lost interest.

My solution? In recent years I've gained the ability to foresee which projects will actually go to successful completion (with almost 100% accuracy). I've made a practice of killing disproductive projects as quickly as possible. Doing so has reduced my disproductivity a fair amount. When confronted with a new project, I ask qualifying questions like:

  • Who actually wants this project?
  • When they find out the cost, will they still fund it?
  • Will it survive resource reallocation for acquisitions, new sites, new product launches, management swaps, bad earnings reports, etc.?
  • Do we have the support, the funding, and the ability to make the project a win, assuming that we complete it?

If I don't like the answers to these questions, I apply a choke hold, poison, or starvation to the project as aggressively as I can. It works.

Attending disproductive meetings. Everyone knows this, but nobody does anything about it. Disproductive meetings are meetings where (a) too many people are invited, (b) the agenda is weak or null, and (c) the follow-up expectations are unclear.  These meetings are disproductive because:

  • They distract people from otherwise valuable work.
  • They frustrate people.
  • They cost a lot of money and don't provide much benefit.

My solution? I love Tim Ferriss's advice in the 4-Hour Workweek. Among my favorites is asking  the organizer what he needs from you in advance so that you can give it to them via email and skip the meeting. Usually they don't know what they need. They plan to let everyone do their thinking for them in the meeting. If the meeting doesn't have a clear agenda, ask for one or don't attend. Also, don't attend the whole meeting. Ask if you can get your stuff out of the way first and be dismissed because you've got "another commitment."

Disproductive email. I noticed this story about Atos banning email. I don't think that email should be banned, but I agree that people should use the most effective means of communication available. Email is generally ineffective and often disproductive. People use email incorrectly in at least the following ways:

  • They use it like IM.
  • They CC way too many people.
  • They don't drop people from distribution once they're not needed.
  • They use it as a data archive.
  • They turn on the inbox alert to distract them every time they get a new, useless email.
  • They use it to say things that they would not normally say.

I don't have any of these problems when I use LinkedIn, Facebook, Skype, or Blogger. They have rough email capabilities, but they don't get abused. Moreover, they never involve large groups of disinterested parties.

My solution?
  1. Don't send email.
  2. If you do send email, avoid CC.
  3. Turn off your inbox notification.
  4. Create aggressive filters. Filter sources, people, subjects, and anything else that you don't really need to see. Yeah, you might miss something important, but they'll call back, and you'll avoid wasting your time.

Reading management's minds. Leaders are supposed to set direction. In most cases, IT management fails to do this. They flounder, they react, they panic, and they drag everyone else along with them. It's impossible to focus on important or complex work when management is driven by urgency.

My solution? Determine the priorities for myself and the people I lead. (See the qualifying questions under "Spinning up disproductive projects" earlier in this post.) When management panics and wants to change priorities, buffer it as much as possible until the questions above are answered. Don't let it impact everyone else until you know whether or not it's important.

Usually management doesn't know why they're panicking. In a few days the dust will settle and they'll be glad that someone held the course.

Things that are not disproductive. Here are just a few examples of things that employers should value over the aforementioned disproductive activities, but don't for some reason:

Chatting with a coworker in the hallway usually is not disproductive. It is a frequent source of innovation and idea generation.

Training is not disproductive. If you are not training your employees because your volume of disproductive work won't permit it, your organization will never be great.

Reading is not disproductive. Reading on the job should be mandatory. Employees should be able to expense any book on the condition that after they read it they share what they have learned with the team.

Brainstorming and whiteboarding sessions are not disproductive. They lead to great ideas and they encourage people to share information that is highly relevant. If you're people are too busy doing disproductive work to think, tinker, and experiment, you will never be great.

Working from home is not disproductive. I did it for a long time. My productivity increased tremendously, as has the productivity of others who have done the same. How?

  • Commute time is recuperated.
  • There are fewer interruptions.
  • There is no need to look busy when between important tasks.
  • Personal needs (laundry, phone calls, etc.) can be intermingled here and there, freeing up time after 5pm for the employee to keep working on important stuff.
  • Sleep and diet improve.

Complaining is not necessarily productive, but it isn't necessarily disproductive, either. It is an indicator that something needs to change, even if it's the complainers. Letting things fester is disproductive.

I would love to see a company wage an aggressive war on sanctioned disproductivity. In a business climate where most companies are still grovelling for marginal efficiency gains, why allow this stuff to continue?

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