Productivity Improvement: It's Not What You Think

It's a universal desire for leaders of busy middle market companies: If only we could be more productive. But according to executive coach Sue Bethanis of Mariposa Leadership, we may have our ideas about productivity improvement all wrong. It turns out the holy grail isn't "inbox zero" or ten straight hours at your desk. "Many people think getting interrupted by others cuts productivity," she says. "However, for many knowledge workers, this is their work."

You may be more productive by embracing interruptions.

If "productivity improvement" means accomplishing meaningful things, it turns out that these interactions - which can spark new ideas and lead to fundamental breakthroughs - may actually be a key ingredient. "My strong belief about creativity is that it's a numbers game," she says. "The more ideas which are produced, the higher likelihood we'll have better ideas to iterate and riff off." That means we need to connect with others (including employees, customers, and leaders of other middle market companies) and share ideas. Ironically, then, the pervasive notion that productivity is about keeping your head down and slogging away for long hours may actually be hindering our ability to innovate and move forward.

The real question, then, is how to work smarter amidst the distractions of modern office life. "You have to balance the discipline of focus with 'going with the flow' of interruptions," she says. When it comes to focus, says Bethanis, the starting point is deciding "what to prioritize and what to give up." If you know what's most important for you to be working on that day, that week, and that month, you can allocate your time accordingly. Also, she says, "What I notice is that the executives [who are the most productive] utilize their admins well." In other words, be relentless in asking, "Do I need to do this task myself, or can I delegate it?" Productivity, she says, "is about a series of good decisions."

On the other hand, to harness the creative frisson of interruptions, Bethanis recommends strategies such as "walking around and solving problems with teammates, instead of just emailing." She also argues that when meeting face to face, you shouldn't waste the opportunity with electronic distractions. She recommends that clients prohibit laptops and other electronic devices in meetings, and she personally avoids using them at mealtimes so she can focus on having meaningful conversations.

To be genuinely productive, middle market leaders need to straddle the line between keeping focused and staying open to the serendipity of an unexpected interruption. It's not an easy balance, but your reward is likely to be the kind of creativity and breakthroughs your business needs to succeed.

Dorie Clark is an NCMM contributor and a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter. Circle her on Google+


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